Thirst Trap

The Silicon Valley initiative to split California into six pieces was a stunt, but the water issues it drew from are real.

California is home to the Folsom Street Fair and the majority of the American porn industry, but our biggest fetish is for direct democracy. Unlike most states, we routinely decide matters of governance by putting them on the ballot and letting every citizen directly vote on them. It’s how we recalled Governor Gray Davis in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, it’s how we banned same-sex marriage in 2008, and it’s how, in December 2013, venture capitalist Timothy Draper almost got us all to weigh in on whether we’d like to carve the state into six pieces.

The “Six Californias” initiative declared California in its current iteration “ungovernable,” and proposed to divide it into six smaller states: Jefferson (near the Oregon border), North California (including Sacramento), Silicon Valley (including San Francisco and Oakland), Central California (most of the middle of the state up to the Nevada border), West California (including Los Angeles), and South California (including San Diego). The putative idea behind the initiative was that smaller, more localized governments would be better able to serve citizens. In reality, it was mostly a publicity stunt. Though it generated plenty of headlines and Twitter jokes, the initiative didn’t get enough valid signatures to make it to the ballot, and the six mini-Californias died before they were born.


When I first read about Six Californias, my second thought was, This is what I’ve been trying to explain to people! My first thought was, This would never work, because some of those substates wouldn’t have any water.

As it turns out, those are actually sort of the same thought. Water—who accesses it, how, and for what ­reason—has played a fundamental role in the creation of the areas roughly mapped out by the Six Californias initiative and the conflicts between them. It is fitting that a venture capitalist drew these hydrologically untenable lines on the map. After all, corporate interests and a few ­super-wealthy individuals are the ones who stand to gain the most from California’s tangled water politics.

I’ve lived in California most of my life, and something I often find myself explaining to out-of-staters is that California can mean a lot of different things, depending on where you’re standing. Yes, it means pot-smoking surfers, gay vegan communists, and movie stars on juice ­cleanses. But drive a hundred miles, and it also means Hmong farm workers, far-right Christian doomsday preppers, and Native Americans on reservations in the Sierra Nevadas.

Media often represents the state as bisected into Northern and Southern California, but there is a more nuanced spread of regional cultures, each enmeshed in its own web of competition and resentment. Extending much farther north than the Bay Area, for example, is a vast rural area sparsely populated by pot cultivators and gun collectors. There’s also the suburban sprawl of the Inland Empire, east of L.A., and the incredibly rich farmland of the Central Valley—South California and Central California to Draper. In short, the Six Californias initiative may have been a failed stunt, but the regions it identifies are to a large extent real.

This multiplicity of regional cultures exists partly just because California is a very big state (largest by population, third largest by area) with people from many different ­places. Less than half of California’s population is white, making it a what’s called a “majority-minority state,” and almost “43 percent of Californians speak something other than English at home, far more than in any other state in the country.” With all that land and all that diversity, regional cultures are bound to bloom.

But there’s another reason for the divisions between these regions: water. Everyone in the state needs it, but only some parts of the state have it, and some areas use a lot more than others. The simultaneous necessity and scarcity of water means that water allocation inevitably privileges some uses—and therefore some regions—over others. This simple fact has long been exploited by the kinds of actors most responsible for the allocation.

The so-called California Water Wars at the beginning of the 20th century, fictionalized in the movie Chinatown, are among the first and undoubtedly the most famous of the state’s water conflicts. In 1900, Los Angeles was growing fast, its population having doubled from 50,000 to 100,000 in a decade. Contrary to the film’s quotable line, L.A. was not actually “a desert community,” but it did need access to water to keep expanding. Former mayor Frederick Eaton and water department superintendent William Mulholland decided to build an enormous aqueduct to divert water to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley, hundreds of miles away. Owens Valley actually is in a desert, but its location in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada made it lush with meltwater runoff from the mountains’ snowpack. Over the next 20 years Eaton and Mulholland set about claiming that water for L.A.

The assassinations and incest of Chinatown aren’t part of the real story, but the real economic cronyism that enabled the project was almost as sensational. Eaton colluded with a friend in the federally run Reclamation Service to buy up land in the Owens Valley that was about to become public. The friend got paid as a consultant and was later hired as deputy of the aqueduct project; Eaton got to sell the land to LA at rates favorable to the city and (probably) made a personal profit as well.

Mulholland and Eaton also tipped off some of “the most powerful development interests in the Los Angeles business community,” who formed what William Kahrl’s Water and Power calls “the San Fernando land syndicate.” These investors bought vast amounts of land in the then-undeveloped San Fernando Valley, where they knew water from the aqueduct would end up being stored. Having used their political and media influence to pass a bond measure funding the aqueduct, the members of the syndicate got to sell their newly hydrated land at a profit.

At one point, no less an authority than President Theodore Roosevelt intervened. Declaring it “a hundred or a thousandfold more important” to the modernizing, urbanizing center of capitalist industry than to the small-time farmers of Owens Valley, he helped make sure the water was diverted to L.A. for the benefit of interests like the real- estate cabal.

So L.A. became a megalopolis at the expense of the valley, which withered into a land of salt flats and dust. Today’s L.A. is, well, L.A. Today’s Owens Valley is economically and ecologically devastated. The complete lack of moisture creates dust at up to 138 times the EPA standard, causing asthma and other respiratory ailments in residents. What was once Owens Lake is now “the single largest source of particulate matter pollution in the United States.” And residents are still focused on their treatment “as a resource colony to be exploited to whatever means they see fit” by a metonymic Los Angeles.

It’s easy to see how the narrative about regional identities has crystallized around this conflict for a century: the mountains against the coast, the rural farmers against the city dwellers, the Paiute/Shoshone people who’ve been in the Owens Valley for thousands of years against the colonizers who suck the land dry. Or “West California” against “Central California,” in Six Californias parlance.

The water system has created the marvelous alongside the nefarious—the cultural riches of L.A. as well as the vested interests that profit from them. Of course residents of the privileged region don’t benefit equally, but that hardly makes poorer Angelenos immune from the enmities created when water austerity kicks in. Though wealthy individuals and corporate concerns aren’t the only reason the current system exists, it does exist in large part because of and for them. And the Six Californias mind-set helps keep regions at odds with each other instead of with the powers that have been profiting off them all since day one.

Longstanding regional water conflicts like the one between L.A. and Owens Valley have intensified in the past few years as California has sunk deeper into a devastating combination of heat and drought—the worst on record since record-keeping began in 1895, according to the National Weather Service. Conditions are so severe that quakes are rumbling and mountains are literally moving as our rapid consumption of groundwater from aquifers warps the earth’s crust.

As our agricultural backbone, the Central Valley (which is technically two valleys that together dominate the middle of the state) has been particularly hard-hit. It is largely in the Central Valley that California produces about half of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts; one-fifth of its dairy; and, of course, most of its wine. But hydrating all those cows and growing all those crops requires water—an immense amount of water, 80 percent of what California uses.

Usually, Central Valley farmers get around 5 million acre-feet of water from the federally run Central Valley Project, but in 2014, they received none of their contracted water supply. Zero. Instead, the limited water went to other regions. More densely populated residential counties in the Bay Area got 50 percent of their promised supply, for example. The Klamath River, which runs through the far north of California and into Oregon, got extra water to keep endangered salmon alive. The Central Valley got none.

Farmers, forced to rely more heavily on the already overtaxed supply of groundwater or water shipped in from elsewhere at great expense—more on this later—are understandably unhappy about the scenario. If you drive from one end of the state to the other on I-5, you see signs bristling along the roadside. They say things like food grows where water flows and no water = no jobs. Farmers blame the coastal regions, with their politicians and environmentalists who think “fish are more important than our farms.” The signs say congress created dust bowl, not dismantle capitalism.

And “big-city liberals”, anxious too about access to water, respond in kind. When journalist Alan Heathcock, who’d been reporting in the Central Valley, posted pictures of drought-stricken fallow farmland to Facebook, his friends left comments about how “these must be really shitty farmers” and “this is what happens when you ‘overfarm’ land.” A move by Senator Dianne Feinstein to divert water to the Central Valley met resistance from a congressman from Draper’s “Jefferson,” who protested that the Senator was “trying to spin this as a job saver, but that ignores the jobs up north that depend on water.” Another from the Bay Area said, “Best I can see, she’s making a decision that jobs in the Bay Area and Northern California and the Peninsula south of San Francisco aren’t as important as jobs in the Central Valley.”

When the problem appears as so many trade-offs, it’s impossible to say which people in which area of the state have more legitimate claims to dwindling water supplies. The farmers in the Central Valley need water, and so do the suburbanites, the fishers, and the environment. The people of the Owens Valley need water, and so do the people of Los Angeles. The social and microeconomic diversity of the state makes our water problem appear ever more morally complex, when the basic pathology is in fact pretty simple.

Who does the water system benefit the most? What powers comprise the San Fernando land syndicates of the present-day Central Valley? Though the bramble of California water politics is impenetrable in places, a few entities stand out as disproportionate beneficiaries of today’s system.

One is billionaire couple Lynda and Stewart Resnick, owners of Paramount Farms, an agribusiness giant in the Central Valley that grows or processes enormous portions of the world’s supply of pomegranates, almonds, and pistachios. They also own the Kern Water Bank, which was built as a public resource, but which they acquired a controlling stake in back in 1995, in a secretive, unlegislated deal known as the Monterey Agreement. A water bank is roughly analogous to a regular bank—members deposit and withdraw water—and the Resnicks’ is “the biggest in America, if not the world.” According to Mother Jones, it “now sells water back to the state at a premium”—in addition to drying up local wells and damaging the environment, if the lawsuits against it are to be believed.

Those lawsuits have, more often than not, come to nothing. Most recently, the Sacramento County Superior Court ruled that the Kern Water Bank’s original environmental study was insufficient, but declared that it was perfectly valid to keep the bank in private hands. Senator Feinstein, as it happens, is a friend of the Resnicks’ and frequently argues in favor of their interests on the state and federal level.

The Resnicks, with their boundless agribusiness wealth, exemplify the power imbalance by which California’s water is actually allocated. Because California’s water regulations are so piecemeal—nonexistent in the case of groundwater until September 2014—capital like theirs can easily lay claim to water resources. They can take all the groundwater in an area, including the drinking water of their own underpaid farm workers, and convert it to profits in which those farm workers never share. They can bank water with little to no regard for the communities and ecologies who also need access. They can take private possession of public resources outside of the legal system, and then sell those resources back to the public sphere.

And unlike the Water Wars’ profit seekers, the Resnicks’ region of business isn’t even the privileged one. Central Valley farmers’ anger at politicians and environmentalists is not unfounded, but surely it should also be directed at the local farming conglomerate whose owners have collected significant portions of the state’s water and sold it.

California could, in theory at least, create a comprehensive pan-regional water plan. It might involve capturing more rainwater and snowmelt, recycling more wastewater, measuring water usage more accurately, and maybe even reducing production and consumption of livestock (which uses many, many times more water than any crop). It would definitely involve regulating groundwater usage and replacing the patchwork of regional water policies with statewide ones.

California can figure out a functional water plan that doesn’t pit region against region, but given local conflicts and the superregionally consolidated capitalist powers that exploit them, it’ll be hard. By and large, though, Californians still see water distribution not as a matter of exploitation of the many by the few, but as a matter of regional conflict, whether it’s NorCal vs. SoCal, Owens Valley versus L.A., or the Central Valley versus everyone else.