Reeling from news of our pending, potentially catastrophic drought, on the first day of January rain I stood on the concrete banks of the San Joaquin River flowing opposite God's initial direction and watched. The water was not muddy, but deep blue-green, penetrable by eye only a foot or so, mysterious below that. The slow current carried long, delicate strings of some water plant-like floats in an underwater parade, roots radiating out from the stems like fingers waving or searching for a hold. This re-directed river, the Friant-Kern Canal, is the lifeblood of many east-side communities like Lindsay, my adopted home town, but it comes with a high price.
They pulled my friend Tammy's car out of the canal almost three weeks ago, two miles upstream from where Tulare Road crosses the canal, then butts into the left flank of Elephant Back. It's the section of the canal I know best, so it grieved me to think her body may have flowed through it, down in those invisible depths, maybe stuck in the siphon below Lewis Creek. It grieved me to think she was dead, period. Four days later they pulled her body out near the siphon.
"What canal?" asked a young woman I work with at RN Market while we waited for news of our once-regular customer. She's smart, and a beauty at heart, but she's never been informed about Lindsay's ecological reality. Most people in town think our water comes from City Hall where we pay our water bills when we can. They don't know we're on life support, dependent on a system where people far away, under the influence of people with more power than humanity, decide which laws to obey, which loopholes to dive through.
Lindsay was platted in the late 1800s by some big thinkers in the Pacific Improvement Company, a subsidiary of Southern Pacific, when that railroad was building its second line east of what's now called the 99 Corridor. They located us in the watershed of an ephemeral stream, Lewis Creek, along the interfluve between the Kaweah and Tule rivers, where no Yokuts village had ever existed because there was no reliable water supply.
Technically, Lewis Creek belongs to the Kaweah watershed, because in years of flood the creek would sometimes join up with the southernmost channel of the Four Creeks that braid the Kaweah delta. In the early 1900s, when pumps supplying the farms around Lindsay began sucking sand, the Kaweah delta is where the town fathers went to appropriate additional water supplies.
This started a 30-year legal water war with other users of the Kaweah's flows, most prominently the Tulare Irrigation District far downstream. A truce was called when Congress appropriated funds to build the Central Valley Project, with its major feature, the Friant-Kern Canal.
Rescuing Lindsay from its dire water shortage was one of the excuses used to build that concrete river to Bakersfield. No one then envisioned the drought we prospect now.
"Do you think this drought is going to make the price of food go up?" a young woman asked me last week at the market, as if working as a cashier gives me some kind of economic expertise.
I rambled out loud about which aisles might see the most increase, while thinking to myself, "Oh sweetheart, that's not the half of it. Where will we get the jobs to produce the incomes to buy anything?" When the projected cuts to agriculture shut off the crops going to the packinghouses, the vast majority of our incomes will disappear. What are they thinking, these "experts" who say there will be enough water for the cities if not the farms? What will it matter?
The truth is, we in town and the farmers in the countryside around us are interdependent, all dependent on those groves of citrus and olives developed over the last century and the water to keep them producing.
Those folks are under serious strain from agribusiness corporations whose sole concern is the bottom line, whose profits go partially to lawyers to keep their market position inviolable and their water supply coming, who wouldn't know a sucker from a new shoot if their lives depended on it.
The decisions being made right now about the distribution of unthinkably short water supplies need to include the economic bases of the towns and not just their drinking water, or a lot more is going to dry up than our lawns.
Trudy Wischemann is a columnist for Tulare County's Foothills Sun-Gazette, which you can read at www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com. She writes from her home in Lindsay.