No Place for Greed

Aug 13, 2021
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

One of the themes that runs through the battles Baykeeper fights every day, sadly, is greed.

We saw it years ago in the actions of the shipping company that dredged contaminated Bay mud and dumped it illegally at night. They didn't want to pay to do it right (but they eventually paid the price for doing it wrong when we sent the owners to jail). We see it on display today with big corporate polluters like Chevron. They poison the Bay and their Richmond neighbors rather than pay to upgrade their inadequate pollution controls (which they will now be forced to do, thanks to recent community activism). And we’ve been waging a long-term war against greed in California’s industrial agricultural sector.

One of my first cases at Baykeeper 20 years ago pitted us against "Big Ag." We challenged a legal loophole that allowed Central Valley agribusiness to dump pesticides contained in irrigation runoff into the state's waterways, many of which are Bay tributaries. The Farm Bureau’s lawyers and lobbyists complained that it wasn't fair to make their clients pay for permits or to require them to monitor the poisons they were dumping into the water. In the end the state water board closed the loophole, and Big Ag became more accountable for monitoring the toxic substances they're applying to their lands.

Now we’re up against the same players, Big Ag and the water board. Only this time, it's not just a matter of closing a single loophole, but dismantling a century-and-a-half of systemic abuse and privilege.

While California is experiencing extreme water shortages, many Central Valley mega-farms don't really have much to worry about. They acquired senior water rights, granted to those who staked claims back in the days of the Gold Rush (in other words, stolen land from California's native peoples). And then, many got even more generous water contracts from the state and federal water projects. The water board—an extension of the governor's administration, which too often takes the path of least political resistance—makes sure Big Ag gets its water needs met first.

Largely at the request of industrial agriculture, Northern California's dams are being drained of their water stores, and groundwater is being overpumped to the point that land is collapsing. The rice industry is getting all the water it asks for—even more than its water rights would allow. And the almond industry is experiencing a banner production year.

The Water Board recently put limits on the amount of water senior rights holders can use, but the restrictions came too late. Agribusiness was awash in water all spring and summer, while our fish and the Bay's water quality suffered. Nearly all of this year's winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River will likely die.

What’s galling is that government agencies and agribusiness are blaming the drought for the state's current water shortage, as if they had no responsibility for the decades of water mismanagement that’s actually causing the crisis.

California has always had a variable climate: droughts and dry years come along regularly, and there's no reason our state agencies can't prepare for them. Climate breakdown has certainly made matters worse, and we no longer have the annual snowpacks of a century ago, so we have to adapt to this new reality. But no California regulator should be surprised when the weather in California turns dry.

So here we are. Big Ag is taking far more than its share of water, and the government agencies are abetting them, rather than looking out for us—and tribal communities, local communities of color, conscientious small growers, migrating salmon, and the Bay’s wildlife.

We're not asking for all the nut orchards and rice paddies in California to be ripped out, but we are calling for an end to the greed. It’s Governor Newsom's responsibility to direct his Water Board to develop and enforce water plans that reflect the reality of the current climate, that are fair for all of us, and that protect our irreplaceable species, communities, and ecosystems. This will take hard work, and Baykeeper scientists and lawyers are currently applying pressure to bring about that change through multiple legal actions and policy advocacy.

While there may never be enough water to satisfy Big Ag, there is no place for greed in our water system. California can have sufficient water for cities, a healthy farm economy, and a thriving Bay. Governor Newsom just needs to act now. Decades of protecting San Francisco Bay have taught me that one can't pollute, drain, or otherwise compromise one part of the ecosystem without causing harm throughout. And Baykeeper has taught me that by working together—with persistence, science, and the law on our side—justice will prevail.

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