All weekend, as the forest fires raged toward the giant sequoias, our national living treasures, I found myself constantly checking the eastern sky. It was as if, by keeping my eyes on the smoke, I might be able to hold back the flames with pure hope. Not knowing the trees’ condition made me feel helpless. Worrying about the fire fighters trying to protect them deepened the helplessness. 

Helpless is a fairly constant state of being for many of us right now. It might be a good place to stand, actually: honest for a change. Drought, flood, hurricane, volcano, earthquake—the news carries a vast spectrum of earth events over which we have no control. How we respond is the space given us to work right now. Skywatching might be the most hopeful thing we can do in this state of helplessness: observe and prepare for what’s coming. While our eyes are heavenward, we might even pray.

It seems like I’ve been looking skyward even for indicators about my work. For a year I have been tracking the progress of a Butte County proposal to form a new water district. Named “Tuscan,” a name that brims with ripe fruit and Italian luxury, the form of the proposed district promises a bountiful harvest to two large landowners—absentee corporations, in fact. It also promises to leave Butte County’s water coffers empty and its aquifers dry.

What makes the Butte County situation feel particularly helpless is that they’ve been here before. A goodly portion of Butte County’s main source of water, the Feather River, has already been commandeered by the undemocratic water districts here in our region—the water and water storage districts on the west side of what used to be Tulare Lake, served by the State Water Project. Local control over that Butte County water is never coming back, not without a major catastrophe and/or revolution. You’d think the Butte County officials would want to protect what control (and supply) they have left.

There are options. If the proposed district was required to form under state irrigation district codes (instead of water district codes), the district’s board would be comprised of local farmers instead of absentee corporations, and the voting structure would be equitable: one-man, one-vote. Under the water district codes, as proposed, votes are divvied up by acreage, meaning the owners with the most property win. In the proposed Tuscan Water District, two landowners (who are absentee corporations) own half the land. 

For a year I have been providing well-researched evidence on the preferability of irrigation districts to the Butte County officials, with little or no response. Perhaps its just too dark in those district promoters’ pockets to see what’s right in front of them.

It’s an old California story, of course. Where water is the key to land, it becomes the key to wealth. Water is an even more useful wealth-making tool than land because it is so mobile and so essential. Over the last hundred years, the state’s taxpayers—and the nation’s—have provided the means for storage and transport of this water. Through our legislators we have provided the legal devices to make the water-holding hands more secure. And now Mother Nature’s drought has triggered the fluid equivalent of a gold rush. All over the state, the modern-day Forty-Niners are grappling for the last nuggets.

Is this particularly American form of human greed as inevitable as the fires raging above us right now? Or do we have some capabilities to fend this off? Do we have some inherent values with which to counter this predictable and unfortunate bad habit? This addiction to money?

I think we do. The only question is whether or not we will exert ourselves. Is there an answer to that in the sky?

Trudy Wischemann is a grounded weatherwoman who writes. You can send her your social forecasts c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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