"Water flows uphill towards money," a source told Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, the seminal book on California water politics. Today the complex web of political interests that Reisner detailed some 30 years ago has become even more arcane and intertwined. As California confronts its worst drought in years, these power brokers will largely determine who gets water, and who gets left high and dry:
Dianne Feinstein: The chair of the powerful energy and water panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee has a history of siding with the state's agricultural interests, which use 80 percent of the state's water. In a March email to two Cabinet secretaries, Feinstein joined Republicans in urging federal water officials to capture "the maximum amount of water" from the Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta for farmers. Two months later, she pushed a drought bill through the Senate by a unanimous vote, over the objections of environmentalists who said it would open the door to permanently increasing water allocations to farmers at the expense of endangered fish. Environmental groups "have never been helpful to me in producing good water policy," she later told the San Francisco Chronicle. She is now hammering out a compromise bill with House Republicans who want to do even more to gut endangered species laws.
Stewart and Linda Resnick AP
Stewart & Lynda Resnick: The Beverly Hills billionaires own a chunk of farmland in Southern California that's larger than four San Franciscos. It includes Paramount Farming Company, the world's largest pistachio and almond growing and processing operation, and Paramount Citrus, the country's leading producer of fresh citrus. The couple also owns Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful, and Teleflora, the nation's largest flower delivery business. In the 1990s the Resnicks gained control of what was originally meant to be a state-owned water storage bank; it now sells water back to the state at a premium. Since 1993, they've donated nearly $5 million to state and federal campaigns and candidates—typically to whomever is in power. They threw a party at their Beverly Hills mansion for Feinstein and entertained her at their second home in Aspen, Colorado. In 2009, Feinstein sent a letter two Obama cabinet secretaries on the Resnicks' behalf that helped convince the feds to delay a plan to curtail delta water diversions for the sake of endangered fish. Feinstein's new Senate water bill would allow delta water to reach California's Kern County, where it would be available to the Resnicks' water bank.
Westlands Water District: The largest agricultural water district in the United States, Westlands, in the heart of the Central Valley, often incites controversy due to its size, its reliance on water from the ecologically sensitive rivers, and its heavy political expenditures. Last year, the district spent more than $600,000 on federal lobbying. Despite its size and wealth, Westlands holds only junior water rights, which means that its contract with the federal government puts it last in line for water deliveries; the drought will prevent Westlands from receiving any federally managed irrigation water this year—unless its 600 farms can pull some political strings. Last week, Westlands petitioned a judge to halt the planned release of 25,000 acre-feet of water from Northern California's Trinity Lake to aid endangered salmon in the Klamath River. "It's like having four thirsty kids in the car and saying you don't have money for them to drink, and then you pull up on the street and give money to someone else," Westlands farmer Mark Borba told the Wall Street Journal. Though Westlands landowners often portray themselves as family farmers and crucial employers, most of the district consists of highly mechanized operations owned by large corporate conglomerates.
"It's like having four thirsty kids in the car and saying you don't have money for them to drink, and then you pull up on the street and give money to someone else."
the metropolitan water district of southern california: By far the state's largest urban water district, the Met supplies the taps about half of all Californians—some 19 million people living in Los Angeles, San Diego, and surrounding cities. It sucks up water from all over the West, including the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, making it a player in just about any aspect of water politics. Though the district supports conservation measures such as rebates for low-flow toilets and incentives for water recycling, it's less progressive than some smaller water districts such as the Sonoma County Water Agency, which, for example, provides some customers with high-efficiency water fixture upgrades at no cost. During the 1990s, the Met built and filled reservoirs that have (so far) prevented Southern Californians from resorting to the kinds of conservation measures seen during the drought of 1977, when restaurants were banned from automatically serving water to their customers. It's now supporting Proposition 1, a November ballot measure that would allocate $2.7 billion for additional water storage projects while also investing money in watershed restoration.
The Association of California Water Agencies: When this coalition's 430 agricultural and urban water districts agree on something, chances are good that it will happen. Last week, the association lent crucial support to the passage of a bill that will make California the last Western state to regulate the pumping of groundwater, a dwindling resource that has been removed from the Central Valley at twice the rate that it's replaced by precipitation. Though riven with debate over the bill, the association ultimately lent its support after winning some ag-friendly concessions and the funding for dams included in Proposition 1. "There's part of the groundwater legislation that's going to have us doing some very painful things locally," Tim Quinn, the association's powerful executive director, told the New York Times. But, he added, "Groundwater management is part of a good solution to a problem, a solution that doesn't involve a contraction of the economy."
Environmental Groups: Influential among coastal politicians and the urban environmentalists who elect them, a slew of environmental groups have something to say about California water politics. Those supporting Proposition 1 include Clean Water Action, American Rivers, Audubon Society, California League of Conservation Voters, California Trout, California Waterfowl Association, Defenders of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited. Notably absent from that list are Friends of the River and the California chapter of the Sierra Club, which are pushing for an alternative bond measure that would allocate more money to conservation, efficiency, and recycling projects.
Some rural, low-income, predominantly Latino towns rely on contaminated and unreliable sources of water even when a cleaner supply passes nearby on its way to wealthy cities in Southern California.
community water center: Arguing that "clean water is a basic human right, not a privilege," the CWC, which advocates on behalf of poor communities, has upended the traditional triad of urban, agricultural, and environmental interests that typically dominates California water politics. Last month, the group was brought into last-minute negotiations between key lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown's office to ensure that the water bond measure would meet the needs of disadvantaged groups; the final measure commits a minimum of $691 million to helping localities gain access to clean drinking water. The CWC has highlighted the plights of rural, low-income, predominantly Latino towns such as East Orosi, Cutler, and Monson, which rely on contaminated and unreliable sources of water even when a cleaner supply passes nearby on its way to wealthy cities in Southern California. The increasing power of the CWC in Sacramento reflects its influence among California's growing cohort of Latino state legislators.
A man from the town of Cutler at a water rights protest Bear Guerra
resources legacy fund: Founded and run by the the lawyer Michael Mantell, a former California state undersecretary for resources for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the Sacramento-based Resources Legacy fund dominates Golden State water philanthropy. With a $37 million budget, the fund last year doled out more than $11 million in grants to a slew of water-related nonprofits, from the Alliance for Water Efficiency to the Yuba County Water Agency. In addition, the RLF does its own research and advocacy through its influential California Water Foundation, which is run by Lester Snow, the former Secretary of Natural Resources under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; the foundation's recent report on California's groundwater problems is credited with spurring the state Legislature to take action. As if all of that wasn't enough, the RLF also spent more than $500,000 on lobbying in favor of sustainability measures last year, including $225,000 in Sacramento, where it weighed in on the water bond.
Eric Garcetti: "Something radical must be done" to address Los Angeles' thirst for water, the LA mayor proclaimed last year, echoing the words of his predecessor Frederick Eaton, who'd said the same thing more than 100 years ago. But rather than pushing for a return to LA's Chinatown roots, Garcetti was advocating a radical shift towards sustainability. He was addressing the One Water Leadership Summit hosted by the US Water Alliance, which advocates breaking down barriers between the management of storm, waste, and drinking water in order to dramatically increase water recycling. Garcetti wants to capture and use some 30 billion gallons of urban runoff in the region by expanding the use of graywater and collecting water in "residential rain barrels." In June he was in Sacramento trying to insert some of those ideas into the state water bond: "I don't think there's enough probably in the older bond that has that," he told the LA Times.
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti on the bank of the Los Angeles River Eric Garcetti
The spent-fuel pool at Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, Iowa
Strict safety controls sought by environmental groups for the storage of radioactive waste at dozens of nuclear power plants may fall to the wayside under a rule that's expected be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next week. According to a congressional source who does not wish to be identified, the NRC is rushing to vote on the rule before the September retirement of Commissioner William Magwood, an ally of the nuclear power industry.
"You will have all the waste sitting, basically, in a giant swimming pool."
The rule would establish that the environmental risks of storing spent fuel in pools of water at reactor sites for extended periods are negligible and for the most part don't need to be studied as part of the licensing requirements for nuclear power plants. But critics of the rule say that the NRC is blatantly ignoring its own research, which shows that the practice could lead to serious disasters: "You will have all the waste sitting, basically, in a giant swimming pool," the source says, "and the potential of the swimming pool draining or being breached by an accident or an attack or a power loss that causes the water to boil off—all of those things would have impacts that the NRC's own analysis says would equal that of a meltdown of the reactor core."
Existing nuclear plants are designed to store spent fuel for no more than a few years but have accumulated large stockpiles of it due to repeated delays in plans to build a permanent repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. In 2010, the Obama administration canceled the $15 billion Yucca project, raising the distinct possibility that a single geologic waste storage site may never be built. In 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council successfully sued to force the NRC to stop licensing nuclear reactors until the commission conducted an environmental impact study on the long-term risks posed by on-site waste—including the possibility that those temporary storage sites will become permanent. The completed study, along with the new rule, is expected to be approved by the NRC on Tuesday, over the strong objections of environmental groups.
A pool fire could contaminate 9,400 acres and displace 4 million Americans, the NRC found in 2003.
The NRC rule would pave the way for nuclear waste to be stored in open cooling pools at reactor sites for up to 120 years—and up to 60 years after a reactor is decommissioned. Environmental groups say that's way too long. "The pools are a catastrophic risk," says Kevin Kamps, the radioactive-waste watchdog for a group called Beyond Nuclear. Many pools are holding up to four times as many spent rods as intended. Packing so many rods into the pools dramatically increases the risk of a fire should a leak cause the cooling water to drain. A 2013 NRC study found that a pool fire could contaminate 9,400 square miles and displace 4 million Americans from their homes for years.
The NRC's assumption that operators will guard and maintain their waste for decades after their plants are decommissioned is laughable to many enviros. In comments submitted to the NRC last December, the NRDC pointed to "the sad history" of managing hazardous waste in America, which often involves commercial operations going bankrupt and saddling taxpayers with the cleanup.
Even at operable nuclear plants, about a dozen waste storage pools are known to be leaking, including one at New York's Indian Point reactor, which is discharging radioactive water into the Hudson River. To minimize the risk of disaster, environmental groups want the industry to immediately move its waste into thick concrete-and-steel dry casks at a cost of roughly $7 billion. But in a 4-1 vote earlier this year, the NRC ruled that this wouldn't be cost-effective.
The Project on Government Oversight called Commissioner Magwood's failure to step down from the NRC a "glaring conflict of interest."
NRC spokesman David McIntyre denied that the commission is rushing to vote on the waste rule before the retirement of Commissioner Magwood, who joined the commission in 2010. Earlier this year, Magwood said he would accept a job as director general of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, an association of governments that sponsor, and in some cases own, American companies licensed to operate nuclear power plants. In a letter to the White House last month, the Project on Government Oversight complained that Magwood's failure to step down from the NRC after accepting the NEA job represented a "glaring conflict of interest."
In a response circulated by the NRC, Magwood claims that the NEA "is primarily a research and policy agency" and that his future job doesn't affect his impartiality.
Yesterday, 34 environmental groups called on the NRC to delay its vote until Magwood steps down. His retirement comes amid a broader shakeup of the NRC panel: Commissioner George Apostolakis' term ended last month and was not renewed by the White House. The two vacancies on the five-member commission will be filled by Jeffrey Baran, an aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and former NRC general counsel Stephen Burns.
Environmental groups hope the new commission will break with its industry-friendly past. "The industry crawls all over that place in terms of lobbying," Kamps told me. "They own that place."
UPDATE: NRC spokesman David Mcintyre asked Mother Jones to clarify that the Tuesday's vote will not automatically allow nuclear reactor operators to store spent fuel on-site for extended periods. Before receiving licenses to do so, plant operators must demonstrate adherence to accepted safety standards, he says.
Peace prevailed last night in Ferguson, Missouri—for the most part. There were a few bottles hurled at the cops, and dozens of arrests, but no gunshots, looting, tear gas plumes, or fusillades of rubber bullets. Largely to thank for this turn of events are the Peacekeepers, a group comprised of mostly of Ferguson and St. Louis locals who've been physically inserting themselves between police and rowdy protesters over the past few days in an effort to diffuse tensions.
The Peacekeepers' unofficial leader is Paul Muhammad, a linebacker-sized guy from St. Louis who favors fatigues but reportedly speaks in the soft tones of a therapist. Little is known about Muhammad, who did not immediately return a call from Mother Jones. "If you are going to be out here all night, I will be out here all night. Let's just go home," he told a teenager with a red bandanna over his face last night, according to Newsweek's Robert Klemko. A few minutes later, someone from a fringe group of onlookers hurled a water bottle and police moved in to disperse the crowd.
Members of the Peacekeepers have been active during the late-night protests since at least Wednesday, when Renita Lamkin, an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor, was shot with a rubber bullet while attempting to mediate between police and protesters:
Over the next few days, Lamkin helped form the ad-hoc Peacekeepers group. Many volunteers turned out in response to a call during an August 12 church service by Rev. Al Sharpton for 100 men to step forward to be "Disciples of Justice" to keep the peace in the area.
The idea to make "Peacekeepers" shirts to help differentiate the group from other protestors was Muhammad's, Lamkin told me. He posted a request on his Facebook page and the next day the shirts arrived. They're now worn by about 10 to 12 people who conduct the nightly patrols. Here's Lamkin in hers last night:
Pastor Renita Lamkin
Lamkin sees the Peacekeepers as a critical way to protect both police and protesters. "We don't want police officers injured and we don't want our young people's lives altered," she told me. "I often tell young people: "Don't make permanent decisions in a temporary place. In this one moment, don't do something that is going to result in a permanent decision for your life."
The Peacekeepers have learned a few important lessons since last week. Since Sunday night, when Lamkin got pushed into side streets by police and cut off from her car, the group now keeps someone "on the outside" who can pick up people who've been cordoned off from the action. On Tuesday night, she ferried several loads of people back to their own cars.
When people ask Lamkin whose side she's on, she replies that she's "on the side of life." Her goal, she clarifies, is "preserving life" so that "everybody goes home."
"The people trust us and they know that we care about them," she says. "So there's the difference: It's the difference love brings to a situation."
"I ain't expecting the police to love on folks; they're there to do a job," she adds. "Our job is to bring the love."
"Crisis is the leading edge where change is possible," Lisa Fithian, an itinerant protest organizer, once told me. Nowhere does that seem more true right now than in Ferguson, Missouri, where ongoing protests have drawn attention to a deep national vein of racial animus. It's not surprising, then, that national figures have begun parachuting into town: the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, actress Keke Palmer, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey—and the list goes on. The threat of "outside agitators" is a meme that has accompanied protests dating back to the civil rights era and beyond. But in Ferguson, there are indeed complaints from local organizers that some outsiders are making the situation worse.
On Monday, when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed an order to bring in the National Guard, he cited "violent and criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state." On Tuesday, US Sen. Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC that the protesters "have now been invaded…by a group of instigators, some coming from other states, that want a confrontation with the olice." An officer told the Washington Post that visitors to Ferguson are engaging in "looting tourism."
Arrest statistics appear to bear them out, up to a point. Of the 78 people arrested Monday night, police told reporters, 68 percent were from the St. Louis metro area, but 18—or 23 percent—had come from out of state, some from as far away as New York and California.
So who are these outsiders, and what do they want? I went looking for every nonlocal organization claiming to have members protesting in Ferguson, from fringe to mainstream. Here are some I found:
Ferguson, Missouri, has been consumed with protests since Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot to death by police on Saturday. Brown was not the only African-American man killed by police in recent weeks under disputed circumstances. Consider these three other recent incidents:
Eric Garner, Staten Island, New York / July 17: Eric Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic father of six, was confronted by New York City police officers for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. When he resisted being cuffed, an officer appeared to put him in a chokehold—a tactic banned by the department since 1993. A video of the arrest, first obtained by the New York Daily News, shows Garner gasping,"I can't breathe!" while officers relentlessly smother him:
More MoJo coverage of the Michael Brown police shooting
The city medical examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying neck compression from the chokehold killed him. But the officers involved in the arrest may not face charges if the homicide is found to be justifiable. Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan is investigating the case.
John Crawford, Beavercreek, Ohio / August 5: Two police officers responded to a 911 call about a man waving a gun at customers inside a Walmart store. According the Beavercreek police department, 22-year-old John Crawford disregarded officers' orders to disarm before being fatally shot in the chest. Crawford's gun turned out to be a .177 calibre BB rifle that he'd picked up from a store shelf. Walmart surveillance camera footage was turned over to the police but hasn't been released to the public or Crawford's family. "Why did John Crawford, a Walmart customer, get shot and killed carrying a BB gun in a store that sells BB guns?" asked Michael Wright, the family's attorney, during a joint press conference with the NAACP. "All the family demands is answers." The Ohio Attorney General's Office is investigating the case.
Ezell Ford, Los Angeles, California / August 11: When police conducted an "investigative stop" of 25-year-old Ezell Ford on a Los Angeles sidewalk, he "wheeled around and basically tackled the lead officer," then went after his weapon, an LAPD spokesperson told the LA Times. But in an interview with KTLA News, a woman who identified herself as Ford's mother said he was lying on the ground, complying with the officers' orders, when he was shot in the back. On Sunday afternoon, a handful of people protested the shooting outside LAPD's headquarters. The LA County District Attorney and the department's Force Investigation Unit are looking into the shooting.
So how often are unarmed African-American men getting shot by the police? The short answer is that nobody really knows, but it's clear that blacks are often disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. In Missouri, for example, African Americans were 66 percent more likely than whites to be stopped by police in 2013, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. A similar disparity exists in many other states and cities.
UPDATE (8/14/14): Another case has come to light in California:
Dante Parker, Victorville, California / August 12: A Victorville resident told police that a robbery suspect had fled on a bicycle. The police detained Dante Parker, a 36-year-old pressman at the Daily Press newspaper, apparently because they found him nearby on a bike. Though Parker had no criminal record (other than a DUI), a scuffle ensued and Parker was tased repeatedly when he resisted arrest, according to witnesses. He began breathing heavily and was taken to a hospital, where he died. The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department is conducting an investigation.