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.
Systems Built on Good Intentions are the Most Dangerous: Pt. 1
by Emma Ketteringham on how ACS surveils and controls pop
August 19, 2020
This interview with Emma Ketteringham, managing director of the family defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, was conducted and condensed by franknews. The second half of this conversation on the child welfare system can be found here.
Emma | The Bronx Defenders is a public defense nonprofit located in the South Bronx. It was founded in 1997 by a group of public defenders who were committed to really redefining how people in criminal legal proceedings were represented. They were some of the thought leaders in a practice called holistic defense.
Is it affecting their employment? Is it affecting their housing? It also asks, why was there this contact with the criminal legal system in the first place? Is there a way to address whatever drove a person into the system?
frank | How did you get involved with the family practice specifically?
When I started, I began to talk to my clients about the impact contact with the criminal system had affected their families and I learned some pretty harrowing facts. Even if I was able to resolve someone’s criminal case favorably, without a criminal record or without jail time, I would learn that as a result of that arrest, the family had come to the attention of the so-called child protection system - and I say so-called because I think whether they actually protect children deserves interrogation, but just to use a more recognizable title. Every state has such an agency charged with investigating families for abuse or neglect of their children. In New York City it's the Administration for Children’s Services or ACS. I began to learn that the arrest, although that had been resolved quickly, had ignited an absolute nightmare in family court with ACS. It had led to intrusive surveillance of their family and for many, the removal of their children from their care. So I started representing my clients in family court.
We found a broken system. We found parents there who were not being advised of their rights or given the necessary information to get their children back. We found children who were languishing in foster care unnecessarily as a result. The city itself was looking at family courts at the same time and finding some of the same things. In 2007, New York City created family defense providers - institutional public defender offices to represent parents in family court proceedings. The Bronx Defenders then expanded to also represent parents in these cases, and since then I have been involved in the practice.
How many people are you working with at one time?
Today we have a practice that consists of about 50 lawyers, and about 25 social workers and parent advocates. One key facet of holistic defense is that our clients don't just get a lawyer assigned to their case. They also work with a parent advocate or a social worker who does a lot of the advocacy and work with the family outside of the court system. We work in those holistic teams and we represent about 2,300 parents at any given time. We pick up about a thousand new parents each year - there are cases that resolve and cases that come in.
It is up to the states whether or not you have the right to a lawyer when the custody of your children is at stake. Most states do have that right, but New York City is really one of the rare places that has an institutional holistic model of representation for parents. The implementation of institutional holistic defense providers has had an incredible impact. Children are spending fewer months in foster care in the cases where we represent the parents, as compared to cases that don't have us as their lawyers.
Can you help me understand how ACS works?
Sure. So, a call is made to the state central registry to report a family for child abuse and neglect. You have probably heard the term “mandated reporter” - the folks who, by law, have to report suspected abuse or maltreatment - doctors, teachers, social workers, nurses. But you don't have to be a mandated reporter to call in a report. In New York City, neighbors can call and report, exes can call and report, reports can even be anonymous. Then, if the report is accepted by the state central registry, it is dispatched to the child protective agency in the area where you live. In New York City, that's ACS. They are then mandated to go out and investigate.
ACS does not get to pick and choose which families they investigate. If they get a report that was accepted by the SCR, they must go out and investigate. Once they go out and investigate, however, they have a range of responses and they have very broad discretion. Investigations are very intrusive.
Essentially, these cases begin with a knock on your door at any time of day or night. The ACS case planner can go accompanied by a police officer, they don't always go accompanied by a police officer. They gain entry to the home and then they start their investigation. They do not have to disclose to the parent who made the report. In fact, some reports can be anonymously made to ACS. They do an extensive investigation, which varies a bit depending on what the allegations are, but those investigations will involve speaking to the parent, doing a house inspection, asking to see all the rooms of the house, asking to see if there's sufficient food in the cupboards and in the refrigerator - and that's regardless of what the allegations are, an analysis of food. Then they will also ask to speak with the children, and they will speak to the children alone and separate from the parents. The people speaking to children are not social workers, because they are not required to be.
And the investigation can also include body checks. And the way it's written about in ACS training manuals is, "observe the parts of the body that are normally covered by clothes." So these can be extensively intrusive investigations.
What happens next? What happens if they find evidence of abuse or neglect?
They can do one of four things.
One, they can find no evidence and close the case and say, I'm very sorry. I just completely traumatized your family, but now I'm going to close the case. That would mean that you're not listed anywhere on any sort of state registry as a child abuser, you are not brought to court, and you do not have to engage in services.
The second thing that they could do is say there's some evidence here of abuse or neglect and we do have “concerns” - “concerns” is a big word in the family surveillance system. And then they might say, we'd like to send you to treatment. Maybe we'd like you to go to a drug treatment program. Maybe we'd like to connect you with mental health services, but we're not going to file a case against you in court. We would just like to surveil you outside of court - they say “supervise” - but basically what they're saying is, if you do what we say, this won't get worse. And many parents opt for that. They comply because they're so fearful of what might come if they don't. And so often all this surveillance and additional services just burdens families and utterly fails to actually strengthen them.
The third thing that ACS could do is say, we're not going to take your children away from you, but we are going to file a case against you in court, and that's because we think we need an extra layer of supervision over your family. This involves a more intense level of surveillance, and if you don't do what the agency says, the court is there to enforce the agency demands by either ordering you to do it or taking your children away from you if you fail to do it.
And then finally, the most powerful and harshest thing that can happen is that ACS can remove your children from your care right then and there when they investigate. Every child protective agency in every state has what are called emergency child removal powers. They can take your children out of your home, place them with strangers if you have no relative to take them, and then give you a date to appear in court.
And remember, the vast majority of parents don't have access to a lawyer until they're brought to court. People who hear about this process for the first time and perhaps have never had to deal with this agency themselves will say, "Oh my gosh, I would call a lawyer right away." And it's like, right, because you can afford to, and you might have one that you know to call. But if you have to rely on the system to assign you a lawyer, because you can't afford to retain one privately, you're not going to get that lawyer until your first appearance in court.
One of the major innovations that we made in our practice over the last couple of years was to create a hotline so that parents could call us at that moment. I think this has been the most effective in changing the trajectory for these families. When I first started doing this work, I was meeting parents whose children had been taken and they hadn't seen them in weeks. Now, when they file against you in court, if you're assigned to our office, the first thing we are going to do is figure out if we can ask for a hearing to get the children either immediately returned or returned soon. I think that's where we have had the most impact – we litigate those hearings often and we often win them.
Most people assume that if a child has been taken away by the government from their parents, that they must be experiencing incredible abuse at the hand of that parent. But what we have found is that about 24% of children who are taken, go right back home once the judge reviews that decision and almost all children go home eventually. And that's because that is when the parent finally has a lawyer and the case is heard by a judge and the parent can put forth their side of the story.
I wonder what sorts of things they look for when they decide to remove children - and how poverty plays a role in determinants.
I think that when we look at drugs, we can see what the system is truly about. We know that if all the children were taken away from all the parents who use drugs, there'd be a lot more white, wealthy children living in the foster system than there are right now. So there's something else going on here than keeping children safe.
When it comes to who is investigated and for what reasons, what we see is that the vast majority of the parents of children in the foster system have not abused or abandoned their children. They are often not even charged with abusing or abandoning their children.
In New York, it's defined as the failure to provide your child with the minimum degree of care. Well, what's the minimum degree of care? To one judge, strict parenting with a spanking does not fall beneath the minimum degree of care. To another judge, it might. To one judge, using marijuana, might not fall beneath the minimum degree of care. To another judge, that might. The problem is that it is such a subjective standard. It's not like the criminal legal system where you have crimes that are defined by a penal code - these child protective cases leave much more room for discretion. It often comes down to the subjective child-rearing views of the observer - first the caseworker, then the prosecuting attorney, and then the judge. That's one problem.
The cases we see are mostly about food insecurity, housing insecurity, not having safe, and adequate childcare- all the things that we've decided, as a country, to not provide to struggling families. This reflects our country’s unwillingness to provide true support to struggling families- the support they need to raise healthy children and to rectify past and present racism in how certain families have been supported while others have not.
Right now, our country is calling to defund the police. That is because we understand how they are hurting and harming people who live in poor communities and who are predominantly Black and brown. The so-called child protection system can be understood as delivering the same harm. The same communities that are overly surveilled by the police, that experience higher rates of arrest, are the same communities that experience disproportionately concentrated surveillance by the so-called child protective system and experience harmful family separation at the hand of the government.
You can take maps of neighborhoods and where you will see higher arrest rates, you will also see greater child protective case concentration.
Both systems are used to surveil and control classes of people.
Do you think there's part of ACS operating in good faith?
I think that ACS is full of people with very good intentions.
What is the disconnect between ACS’s stated mission and what happens in practice?
When we start to find answers to why we have a system of mass incarceration, we uncover the same reasons that we have a foster system that looks the way it does. To say "Oh, but there are children who are abused. So this system is necessary” is the same thing as saying that, well, there are folks who commit crimes, so the industrial prison complex is necessary. I don't think that's true. I think we can reimagine a completely different response to families that are struggling with caring for their children. And we have never done that. While I think that ACS and other child protective systems across the country might be made up of many highly motivated people to do right by children, they are still playing a role in a system that is the product of racism in this country. It is a system that keeps certain populations controlled and down.
The reason why I think people have a much harder time understanding this system that way is because they don't really understand exactly how it operates. We're waking up to the fact that putting someone in prison for the third time, caught with marijuana in their pocket, is not the response of a civilized community. Well, why then is separating children from their mother because she needs treatment for a mental health issue imaginable? It would be unimaginable for families of privilege to be separated from their children and to have that relationship legally severed forever because the parents are experiencing an issue.
It is unimaginable. I keep coming back, thematically, to paternalism, and this weird game of morality – which immorally devastates children in this case.
And then you have it left up to individual subjective discretion to determine whether the situation before them falls within it, that leaves an incredible amount of room for one's own bias, and one's own prejudice to seep into those decisions.
The kinds of allegations they bring against, predominantly mothers, mind you, are infused with judgment, and infused with ideas of what is suitable and what is not. One of the challenges that our lawyers, social workers, and advocates have while doing these cases is trying to address that before a judge - like, are you really raising the fact that she uses marijuana? We know that the parents in these other higher-income neighborhoods are also using marijuana and no one would dream of knocking on their door and dragging their child out of the house. It just would not happen. So how do you justify this as to why?
We know that abuse and neglect are equally likely in all income brackets, among all races. Yet this system has profound race and income disproportionality issues. Part of the reason for it is that our country has always equated being poor with individual failure or personal deficit, rather than the failure of our government to support all people equally.
Poverty has always been viewed as an individual fault. That gets us to another piece of the system that is so irrational when you actually interrogate it. You meet a family and you learn that the mother doesn't have childcare, so she's going out to her back to work welfare appointments, and leaving her children home alone in the apartment. And she's doing that because if she doesn't make those appointments, she will lose her benefits, which then would hurt her entire family. So she's taking a calculated risk. The response then to her is not to get her the childcare, it is to send her to a parenting class, to teach her not to leave her children at home, which guess what? I think she knew that. Second of all, she'll probably end up, because her children have been removed from her, losing the very benefits she was working so hard to preserve because now her household has been reduced, so she no longer has the children in her care. And then we then give the money to the foster parent so that the foster parent has money for childcare. That's why it is a punitive system, even though it claims not to be. It claims to be a therapeutic system. It claims to be a system that's helping families take care of their children. But how? How is that response therapeutic? The trauma to those children who then have to go live with a stranger, maybe transfer out of their schools, maybe only see their mother once a week at a foster care agency in a room under the watchful eye of a case planner, where she can't naturally parent them and love them, that digs a wound that never heals.
And yet we're talking about a situation where someone needed a babysitter. They need to believe there's something so fundamentally flawed about this woman for not having the resources for childcare that that's the response. And it's so infused throughout the entire system from case planner right up to judge that it's hard to understand quite frankly, how it still exists.