Water and the American West
by Richard Frank
October 25, 2021
This interview with Richard Frank, professor of environmental practice at the UC Davis School of Law and Director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
frank | Can you tell me a little bit about the story of water and how it's tied to the West, and to California in particular?
Richard | A friend of mine who's a Court of Appeals Justice here in California wrote an opinion on a water law dispute and started it with the quote, "the history of California is written on its waters." And I think that the point is true of the entire American West.
Water policy and legal issues are inextricably tied to the development of the Western United States; water is the limiting factor in so many ways to settlement, to economic development, to prosperity, and to the environment and environmental preservation.
Can you talk about the difference between groundwater and surface water– and the policies that regulate each?
There are really two types of water when it comes to human consumption. There's surface water: that is the water that is transmitted by lakes, rivers, and streams. Then there is groundwater, and a substantial amount of water that Americans and the American West rely on is groundwater. That is water that is stored in groundwater aquifers, which are naturally occurring groundwater basins. Both groundwater and surface water are critical to the American West and its economy and its culture.
Traditionally a couple of things are important to note, first of all, water is finite. Second, water gets allocated in the Western United States generally at the state level. There's a limited federal role. Primarily, policy decisions about who gets how much water for what purpose are made state by state.
I think allocation is really interesting in that it's more state-level than federal. How was water and the allocation of water in California designed? Is it a public-private combination? What goes on in terms of the infrastructure of water?
Another very good question. The answer is it depends. Most of our water infrastructure is public in nature.
Again, in the American West, the regulation of water rights is generally done at the state level, but the federal government, historically, has a major water footprint in the American West because it has been federal dollars and federal design and management that really controlled much of the major water infrastructure in the American West — you know, Hoover Dam, and the complex system of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River in California, with the Central Valley Project that was built and managed by the federal government with Shasta Dam on the upper Sacramento River as the centerpiece of that project. But we also have a California State Water Project, the key facility being the Oroville Dam and reservoir on the Southern River that is managed by state water managers. If we were starting over, that kind of parallel system would make no particular engineering or operational sense.
But, we are captive to our history.
And then you have these massive systems of aqueducts and canals that move water from one place to another throughout the American West. They are particularly responsible for moving water from surface water storage facilities to population centers. In the last 50 to 75 years, these population centers have really expanded dramatically, so you need massive infrastructure to deliver water from those storage facilities, the dams, and reservoirs, which generally are located in remote areas to the population centers. So it takes a lot of time and energy to transport the water, from where it is captured and stored to where it is needed for human use.
California has faced continuous drought – what measures is the state taking now to manage water?
Just to frame the issue a little bit — we have, as I mentioned, a growing population in the American Southwest at a time when the amount of available water is shrinking due to drought and due to the impacts of climate change. We have growing human demand for residential and commercial purposes and at the same time, we have a shrinking water supply. That is a huge looming crisis.
And it is beginning to play out in real-time. You see that playing out in real-time. For example, several different states and Mexico rely on Colorado River flows based on an allocation system that was created in the 1920s, which is overly optimistic about the amount of available water. From the 1920s until now, that water supply has decreased, and decreased, and decreased. Now you have interstate agreements, and in the case of Mexico, international agreements that allocate the finite Colorado river water supplies based on faulty, now obsolete, information. It is a real problem.
What measures do you take now, knowing this information?
If you look at the US Drought Monitor, it is obvious the problem is not limited to the Colorado River. We are in a mega-drought, so cutbacks are being imposed by federal and state water agencies to encourage agricultural, urban, and commercial water users to cut their water use and, and stretch finite supplies as much as possible through conservation efforts.
In California, we have the State Water Resources Control Board, the state water regulator in California, and they have issued curtailment orders. Meaning, they have told water rights holders, many of whom have had those water rights for over a hundred years, that, for the first time, the water that they feel they are entitled to, is not available. Local water districts are also issuing water conservation mandates; the San Francisco water department is doing that, in Los Angeles, the metropolitan water district, is urging urban users to curtail their efforts.
And then agriculture. Agricultural users — farmers and ranchers — have had to get water rights in many cases through the federal government, as the federal government is the operator of these water projects. They have contracts with water users, individual farmers, ranchers, or districts, and they are now issuing curtailment orders. They're saying, we know you contracted for X amount of water for this calendar year, but we are telling you because of the drought shortages we don't have that water to supply. Our reservoirs are low at Lake Shasta or at the Oroville Dam.
When you drive from San Francisco to LA on the five, you see a lot of signage from the agricultural farming community about water. There's apparently some frustration about this. What are the other options for them?
About 80% of all human consumed water goes to agriculture. That is by far the biggest component of water use, as opposed to 20% used for urban and commercial, and industrial purposes.
Over the years, ranchers and farmers, and agricultural water districts assumed that the water would always be there — as we all do.
And the farmers and ranchers have, in hindsight, exacerbated the problem by bringing more and more land into production. You see on those drives between San Francisco and Los Angeles, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, all these orchards are being planted. Orchards are more lucrative crops than row crops — cotton, alfalfa, and rice. But, if you are growing a row crop, you can leave the land fallow in times of drought.
We don't have to plant. If the water stopped there, or if it's too expensive to get, it may make economic sense, but if you have an orchard or a vineyard it's a high value, those are high value crops, you don't have that operational flexibility and they need to be irrigated in wet years and in dry years. Now, you see these orchards, which were only planted a few years ago, are now being uprooted because the farmers realized that they don't have the water necessary to keep those vineyards and orchards alive. For ranchers, the same thing is true with their herds. They don’t have enough water for their livestock.
The water shortage has never been drier than it is right now. Farmers and ranchers are being deprived of water that they traditionally believed was theirs and they're very understandably, very unhappy about it. They see it as a threat to their livelihood and to the livelihood of the folks who work for them. Their anger and frustration are to be expected, but it's nobody's fault.
To say, as some farmers do, that it is mismanagement by state and federal government officials, I think is overly simplistic and misplaced in the face of a mega-drought. Everybody's going to have to sacrifice. Everybody's going to have to be more efficient in how they use water. All sectors are going to need to be more efficient with the water that does exist.
Looking at this percentage breakdown of water use – is it actually important for individual users to change their water habits?
Well, every little bit helps. When you're talking about homeowners, about 70% of urban water use is for outdoor irrigation. So we're talking parks and cemeteries and golf courses and folks' yards. You know, that used to be considered part of that American dream and the California dream — you would have a big lawn in front of your house and behind your house. Truth be told, that has never made much sense in an arid environment. That's where the water savings in urban areas is critical in the way it really involves aesthetics rather than critical human needs, like water for drinking and bathing and sanitation purposes. There is a growing movement away from big lawns, and away from the type of landscaping that you see in the Eastern US — there is no drought in the Eastern United States. As Hurricane Ida and other recent storms have shown, the problem is too much water, or rather than too little in most of the Eastern United States. So it really is a tale of two countries.
We just need to recognize that the American West is an arid region. It has always been an arid region, we can't make the desert bloom with water that doesn't exist. We need to be more efficient in how we allocate those water supplies. And it seems to me in an urban area, the best way to conserve and most effective way is to reduce urban landscaping, which is the major component of urban water use.
You also write about water markets and making them better – for those who don’t know, what is the water market?
Water markets, that is, the voluntary transfer of water between water users, is more robust in some other Western states. Again Arizona and New Mexico come to mind. California somewhat surprisingly is behind the curve. We are in the dark ages compared to other states. Water markets are kind of anecdotal. There is not much of a statewide system. It is done at the local level, through individual transactions without much oversight and without much transparency. And I have concerns about all of those things.
I believe conceptually watermarks are a way to stretch scarce, finite water resources to make water use more efficient. I can, for example, allow farmers or ranchers to sell water to urban uses or commercial usage or factories in times of drought.
Farmers sometimes can make more money by farming water, than they can by farming crops.
There are efficiencies to be gained here.
The problem in my view is really one of transparency. The water markets are not publicly regulated, and some of the people who are engaging in water transactions like it that way, frankly, they want to operate under the radar.
In my opinion, water markets need to be overseen by a public entity rather than private or nonprofit entities. We need oversight and transparency, so that folks like you and myself can follow the markets to see who's selling water to whom, for what purpose, and make sure that those water transfers serve the public interests and not just the private interests.
There have been a number of stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Salt Lake City Tribune about efforts in some parts to privatize water transfer. Hedge fund managers are buying and selling water, as a means of profiting. And it strikes me that when you're talking about an essential public resource — and in California, it is embedded in the law that public water is an inherently public resource, that water is owned by the public and it can be used for private purposes, but it is an inherently public resource — the idea of commoditizing water through the private, opaque markets is very troublesome to me. I think it represents a very dangerous trend and one that needs to be corrected and avoided.
Why is California so behind?
There's no good reason for it. It's largely inexplicable that since the state was created on September 9th, 1860, we've been fighting over water. In the 19th century, it was miners versus farmers ranchers. In the 20th century, with the growth of urban communities, the evolution of California into one of the most populous states with 40 million Californians, it has been a struggle between urban and agricultural uses of water.
In the second half of the 20th century, there was a recognition that some component of water had to be left in streams to protect ecosystems, landscape, and wildlife, including the threatened and endangered wildlife. That suggestion has made agricultural users in California angry. You will see those signs that allude to the idea that food and farming are more important than environmental values. I don't happen to believe that's true. I believe both are critically important to our society. But the advocates for the environment have a proverbial seat at the water table. So that's another demand for water allocation that exists.
Do you maintain optimism?
Yes. I think it's human nature to look on the bright side. I try to do that through research scholarships and teaching. There are models for how we can do this better in the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia and Singapore are far more efficient with their water policies and efforts. Australia went through a severe megadrought. They came out of it a few years ago, but they used that opportunity to dramatically reform their water allocation systems. That's an additional model. I think most people would agree in hindsight that their previous system was antiquated, and not able to meet the challenges of climate change and the growing water shortage in some parts of the world.
Here in the United States, we can learn from those efforts. There are also some ways to expand the water supply. Desalination for one. Again, Singapore and Saudi Arabia have led the world in terms of removing the salt content from ocean water and increasing water supply that way. In Carlsbad, California, north of San Diego, we have the biggest desalination plant in the United States right now, and that is currently satisfying a significant component of the San Diego metropolitan areas’ water needs. It's more expensive than other water supplies, but the technology is getting more refined, so the cost of desalinated water is coming down at a time when other water supplies, due to shortages and the workings of the free market are going up.
At some point, they're going to meet or get closer. Unlike some of my environmental colleagues, I think desalination is an important part of the equation.
In a proposal that came up in the recall election, one of the candidates was talking about how we just need to build a canal from the Mississippi River to California to take care of all our problems. That ignores political problems associated with that effort, as well as the massive infrastructure costs that would be required to build and maintain a major aqueduct for 2000 miles from the Mississippi to California. That's just not going to happen. Some of those pie in the sky thoughts of how we expand the water supply, I think, are unrealistic.
Observations on Media Activism
by Dr. Clark-Parsons
October 16, 2019
Dr. Clark-Parsons is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Activism, Communication, and Social Justice at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her teaching and research revolve around feminist social movements in the United States and their media practices, drawing on her own participation in and observations of contemporary feminist media campaigns. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview with Dr. Rosemary Clark-Parsons was conducted and condensed by frank news and originally published on September 13, 2018.
frank: I would love to talk to you about your focus on feminist social movements and media practices. But particularly, digital media and social media, in both positive and negative ways.
Rosemary: Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that. Always.
Right now I am post-doctoral fellow in activism, communication, and social justice at the Annenberg School for Communication which is at University of Pennsylvania. I just wrapped up my PHD there over summer, and I sort of came to this research interest through a long-standing interest going back to college in gender in media. I was really interested at first in focusing my research on media representations of women, girls, and other gendered bodies.
But I found that that research area was so depressing and kind of stagnant. We know that the state of affairs when it comes to media representations of gender is pretty bad and has been pretty bad for a long time. That's where the story ends on the research side of things.
I was interested in turning toward the activists who are trying to do something with media to change the state of affairs when it comes to gender and power and representation. So, that's essentially how I got into my interest in studying activism.
frank: How did you end up combining them?
Rosemary: For me the answer came through a research method that we call ethnography which essentially involves participant observation. The data collection method comes from actually being involved in and participating in the thing that you're studying.
That meant getting involved with grassroots activist groups in the city of Philadelphia.
frank: What have you found effective in both your research and your activism?
Rosemary: A lot of my research has been focused on the fact that there are both strengths and weaknesses to using any sort of communication tools, whether we're talking about digital, or analog, or non-digital tools, for activist purposes. All of these tools have a fair amount of limitations, but a lot of the discourse in the early days of the internet was this is how the revolution is going to happen.
frank: What are those limitations?
Rosemary: One of the biggest limitations actually comes from one of the biggest strengths. Now we no longer need to have access to a big name organization, with lots of money, lots of people power, resources, and experience to launch a movement. And on the one hand, that's great. We can launch a big protest without requiring the same degree of physical organization. We don't have to be meeting for months at a time in person to organize some kind of political action whether that's a street protest or a boycott or what have you.
So, while we can launch an action really quickly, sometimes we have issues in these movements with long term struggles for social justice, with responding to new challenges as they emerge.
frank: One thing that keeps coming up in terms of effective activism is having very clearly outlined goals. With the ease of social media we can quickly gain a lot of attention but just as quickly forget the true desired outcome. How do you think people avoid that? What sort of leadership or communication does that take?
Rosemary: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that's another issue that comes from this sort of double-edged sword of doing digitally networked activism. On the one hand, if you look at hashtag campaigns, anyone can chime in and sort of bring their own personal reasons for participating to the table. I can share my story under the #MeToo hashtag, for example. But then when it comes to articulating a very clear set of, for example, policy goals, or just concrete steps toward social change, whether at the policy level or more at the cultural level, we're not seeing these movements come together to put out a mission statement. Does that make sense?
Rosemary: I think the more successful movements that we're seeing are combining the more old fashion elements of movement organizing, like meeting somehow in person together with a dedicated group of activists, organizing locally, and then also doing these sort of huge network campaigns at the same time. #MeToo is a great example of that, having both the long term struggle component led by Tarana Burke, and sort of branching off into the Time's Up movement. The Never Again movement that came out of the shootings in Florida is another great example of this as well. They're taking advantage of the participatory globally networked nature of social media platforms while also doing the difficult work on the ground to organize long term.
frank: Right. There seems to be a need for a more intense focus on the communities you're actually trying to help.
Rosemary: Yeah, I think that we especially saw this with the very impressive young activists who came out of the Stoneman Douglas shootings. You could see it play out in terms of the news coverage, the need for them to gain trust, not just within their local communities but to gain the trust of their audience. To gain respect of authorities on the issue of control despite the fact that they're these teenagers. Which was working against them.
I think trust, in terms of how you're received by the public, whether that's your immediate neighborhood, organizing for an issue on your block, or whether that's your national audience, as in the case of the Never Again movement, it's essential for social movements, and again requires some of that more old fashioned form of organizing. There were a couple of pieces written about how the teen activists in Stoneman Douglas came together and organized in the aftermath of the shooting. There's a story about them getting together at a slumber party at one of the activists houses and deciding “This is our strategy. This is how we handle the media. We cannot make mistakes, actually, because that will immediately be a reason to put us down. You know we already have our age working against us. We need to gain the trust of our audience."
Trust has always been a key component for a successful movement and continues to be. And it's become even trickier in our world of fake news and conspiracy theories circulating online. You really need to have some authority and gain the trust of your audience.
frank: What do you think about the commodification of cause? About activism as trend? I have a strong gut reaction when I see this stuff online, and think, I don't need to hear about x from you, but perhaps that doesn't matter and all voices added to the mix are important.
Rosemary: Yes, that's a great question. There are two big related changes I've seen with activism over the past five years. One is that it's becoming more mediated and the second is that it's becoming more personalized, like hashtag activism. All the people posting under the hashtag are united by the hashtag itself but they're sharing these very individualized, personalized stories or reasons for participating. That makes it really easy to coopt and commodify. When it's just this personal individual act, it's very easy to take that up and turn it into something that you can sell.
We saw this unfortunately, and unbelievably to me, with the #MeToo movement. There were makeup lines branding their products with the #MeToo hashtag. We saw jewelry and clothing lines popping up around the campaign, even a whole bunch of different mobile apps. And they certainly have somewhat of a positive valance. We want to see these issues represented within popular culture, within consumer culture. But there's the danger there of suggesting that what's needed to solve a problem as big as sexual violence and sexual harassment is just this individual act of buying something rather than collectively organizing for structural change.
frank: If you have a large social presence or voice, and you want to be involved, how do you avoid personalizing everything, or avoid taking away from the movement's goals?
Rosemary: I don't think that there's necessarily anything inherently wrong in personalizing your involvement. Feminists in the U.S. have been saying the personal is political since the 1960s. The issue is keeping that connection between the personal and the political, reminding the people who are following you that your personal story is connected back to this structural issue, not just you. It's part of this, in the case of #MeToo, global issue of sexual violence.
frank: Do you feel like people, especially women who have a large voice or public presence, should feel a responsibility to contribute to the conversation, or do you think that we put too much pressure on people to fall into the categories and narratives that we would like to see them in?
Rosemary: One of the very valid concerns about the #MeToo movement, for example, is that we're putting a lot of pressure on not just women but anyone who has experienced sexual violence and harassment to come forward and tell their story. And one concern there is all of the focus is on the survivors and the victims rather than on actually holding accountable the people who are responsible for this behavior and for these assaults in some cases.
We see a lot of hype in the media, a lot of excitement, however misguided, when someone comes forward and says yet another big name renowned celebrity has committed some act of sexual misconduct, and then it becomes about the interpersonal drama.
Rather than the fact that this is huge problem that exists way beyond the scope or the story of two people. I think that there's a danger there in encouraging high profile people to continue to come forward, but at the same time, it's yet another one of these double-edged sword situations. When they come forward, they also encourage other people to feel less shame about their own experiences.
So, it's one of those sort of gray zone situations, to me.
frank: What do you think is next in terms of feminism and feminist movements? What do you think is the next big push and focus?
Rosemary: I think what seems to be on the horizon for feminism in the U.S. right now is figuring out how to take what has been for several years now a very visible surge of feminist activism that has been very much focused on the personal, on everyday fight the power and oppression, everyday encounters with sexual violence, and channeling that into more sustainable, long-lasting, efforts for social change, at the policy level, at the level of more formal institutions of power.
Because on the one hand, we're living in a moment where feminism is everywhere. We can, as we've talked about, buy feminist branded products in the store.
We live in this moment, where it's everywhere, but we also live in a moment where the reality is that Donald Trump is president and we're seeing a systematic roll back of women's rights, of civil rights, the rights in marginalized communities, on a near daily basis. So, there's a disconnect there.
Somehow, we have risen to this high level of visibility within popular culture, but we're not at the same time able to create these longer lasting institutional changes. I'm hopeful that that's going to shift, that the disconnect is going to come together a little bit more. We're seeing a lot of headlines heralding what they're calling the Year of Women. A lot of feminist candidates have been running for different levels of political office. The next big issue for these movements is figuring out how to turn that energy, turn that focus, on everyday sorts of injustice, everyday sites of power, and channel that into more institutional long lasting forms of change.
frank: What new policy for women's equality are you looking for? Or, is the change you're more interested in cultural?
Rosemary: I think we need to not lose sight of either one. I don't want the pendulum to swing too far into the direction of institutional policy and let go of some of the great work feminist activists have been doing around these more every day social forms of change. We're now more aware than ever, I think of sexual harassment as a social issue, but I think they need to be paired together. I would love to see the same amount of energy and the same amount of success in the area of shoring up our policies around sexual harassment, shoring up the resources we have for survivors who are seeking legal recourse or who are seeking some kind of transformative justice within their particular cases. We know that this is an issue that is everywhere and that's undeniable, but the question becomes now what?
frank: What do you feel is being overlooked right now? In terms of what your research is focused on.
Rosemary: This has been the common thread, I think, in what we've talked about already, but one point that I feel I try to make in my research is that we need to be paying close attention to this shift away from a time when big name formal organizations structured with movements which came with its own set of pros and cons. There are organizational resources on the one hand, and dedicated leaders, but then there are also all sorts of exclusion and gatekeepers filtering out who gets to participate and whose voices are heard.
We're seeing a shift away from that and towards these media platforms, actually becoming the way that movements are structured. So, whereas you might have had in the past, organizations controlling a movement's communication, today, the actual message itself, whether it's a hashtag, or whether it's a platform - these forms of media are at the center of a lot of social movements today and that comes with a whole range of affordances and limitations. I think that's a major shift that's being overlooked in conversations about the future of social organizing in the U.S. and one that I try to highlight a lot in my own work.