Monday, September 5, 2011

Glimpses of water justice in California

The golden state takes much pride in its abundance of natural resources. And why not? After all, miner's struck it rich in the 1848 Gold Rush, it is home to the tallest trees in the world-the redwoods, and it enjoys the eternal sunshine (hence the "golden")--just to name a few. Still, found within the state are whole communities that lack access to one of the most basic natural resources that humans need to survive:water.

Safe drinking water to be exact. Here enters the question of water justice. The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water defines water justice as “[T]he ability of all communities to access safe, affordable water for drinking, fishing, recreational and cultural uses.”* Consequently, those who suffer from water injustice tend to be poor, immigrant, rural, or people of color. In the rural context, California’s massive agricultural system has tapped the state’s rivers and has their natural flows in order to fuel giant monoculture crop fields. Furthermore, the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used during the growing seasons seep into the soil and inevitably affect underground water basins.

According to an article in New America Media, 220 communities found within rural California struggle for access to affordable, safe drinking water. Traces of toxins that cause cancer and birth defects have been linked to people's kitchen faucets. In Lanare, California residents have had to pay a hefty fee for ensuring access to drinkable water. The choices set before communities like Lanare are privatize public works, buy bottled water, or drink what is available, which is often below state health standard water. All of these are expensive "choices."

With no reliable public works system, many people end up having to rely heavily on bottled water. Bottled water is a choice that comes with a mountain of hidden costs, and the environment foots much of the bill. According to a 2007 report by the Food and Water Watch, it is estimated that the United States consumes more than half a billion bottles of water every week and generates 2 million tons of PET plastic botttles waste every year.

To the north, a different kind of struggle over water is taking place along some of California's majestic rivers. In redwood country, native communities have been struggling to have full access to the river, claiming they depend on the river for economic, social and cultural purposes. Dams are the biggest barriers to the tribe's self-sufficiency.

The dams' alterating of the natural river flows have been linked to the rise of blue-green algae (BGA) or Microcystis aeruginosa, the 2002 massive salmon fish kill, and impending threat of loss of cultural knowledge. Throughout Humboldt and Shasta Counties one finds warning signs advising people not to go in the water due to the high levels of BGA. According to the World Health Organization and the Klamath River Keepers, chronic exposure to BGA has been linked to liver failure and cancer.

In the summer of 2002, residents of the Klamath River Watershed witnessed one of the largest fish kills in the nation's history. It is estimated that over 70,000 salmon died due to low water levels and high temperatures. The struggles of local tribes led up to a 5-year-long campaign targeting PacificCorps—a Scotland based multinational corporation. The “Un-Dam the Klamath” campaign successfully negotiated the removal of all the dams on the Klamath River basin.

Author of Water Wars, Vandana Shiva, reminds us of the important role of community and culture in the development of sustainable agriculture and water systems. In a brief interview, Shiva discusses water culture in India. Her analysis of water as a resource of life, culture and ecology and not as a commodity to be privatized and reap profits from is fitting to the discussion of water in rural California. Many Californian's like Indian citizens, have a deep intimate relationship to their water resource (i.e. rivers, lakes, pacific ocean). The relationships take on economic, social, spiritual and/or cultural dimensions. The Northern California tribes have been making this precise claim--without water there is no life. A claim we must take serious especially with dramatic changes in global climate temperatures.

While water (in)justice manifest on multiple scales throughout rural California, it is also becoming more apparent that communities are expressing a common demand to have local control of their resources. Signs of local autonomy abound in the state and beyond. In Stockton, Ca citizens ran out a multinational corporation (OMI-Thames) attempting to privatize the city's water system; in other parts of the central valley, residents are organizing campaigns to protect the diminishing groundwater from harmful agricultural chemicals; and lastly, more people are taking steps to ensure that corporations don’t manage their livelihoods through the exploitation of resources such as water (check out the take back the tap campaign).

1 comment:

Scarecrow said...

The Yurok Tribe of Northern California is having trouble maintaining its culture because of water issues. Traditionally, the tribe has conducted special dances in canoes on the Klamath River. But when the river was dammed, water flows were so weak, the canoes would bottom out on the river bed. Tribal leaders have to contact the Department of Reclamation to ask that more water be released so they can perform these ceremonies.