Last week’s flooding events have taught us many things. Probably the most important one is that we need to be ready for water to appear out of nowhere, going somewhere it’s never been before because we have placed barricades and sinkholes in its old paths.
I think another lesson, however, is that we, as a community of people who live in this place, need to be more active in seeing that our government agencies and elected officers are able to do the work of protecting the public. I have one suggestion for beginning that process: to get rid of property-weighted voting in water districts in order to remove the inordinate power over water that the largest, absentee landowners hold over our heads.
Before you let your mind say that’s impossible, let me further suggest that enough things have already changed to make that change possible. But the flooding events to the west of us here on the Kings and Kaweah River Fans, out there where the lake used to be and wants to be again, at least for a little while, these tell us that change is necessary, regardless of how difficult it might seem.
Here’s an example from the southwest corner of our county, courtesy of Lois Henry, director of the news web site SJV Water. Jack Mitchell, 83, who is head of the Deer Creek Flood Control District, was out checking the Deer Creek levees on Friday, St. Patrick’s Day, and saw that things were flowing like they ought. He headed out Saturday at 2:30 a.m. to check again, and found a sheet of water where it wasn’t supposed to be, headed for Allensworth. So he called a community leader there, Kayode Kadara, to warn them. He then called Chad Gorzeman, a farmer with a bulldozer, who found the breach in the levee—a cut, in fact, complete with heavy equipment tracks that led to an equipment yard in Earlimart that indicated who was responsible. “‘S’um bitch,’ said a clearly stunned Mitchell. ‘Ain’t that somethin’?’”
The article says that “law enforcement was called,” but says nothing about the response. Mitchell also discovered that the place on the Homeland Canal (said to belong to the Boswell Company) where the cut was needed to allow Poso Creek to flood where it was supposed to go—onto Boswell land, instead of flooding Allensworth and Alpaugh—had been blocked by a large piece of equipment. Phone calls to Boswell headquarters went unanswered. So Mitchell made a smaller cut to buy a couple of days’ worth of time while others began appealing to government officials higher up.
That same Saturday the Kings County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting and eventually voted to cut a levee where the Tule River and South Fork Kings meet, flooding Boswell land, although the timing wasn’t announced. On Monday, however, Jack Mitchell received two phone calls, one apparently from Boswell headquarters threatening to have Mitchell arrested if he attempted to move the equipment, the other purportedly from the Kings County Board of Supervisors saying “leave the Homeland Canal alone or face jail.”
The SJV Water article reported Mitchell as saying “‘Well what do I do?…Just let two towns flood to keep this water off the lake bed?’” That would be Boswell’s choice, it appears.
Can one large landowner, an absentee agribusiness corporation, legally decide to flood out rural residents of two counties and thousands of others’ acres of cropland and permanent plantings? During dry years, can they legally pump the groundwater aquifers so hard they collapse, causing drops in elevation of towns and canals, highways and railroad lines, simultaneously reducing our capacity to recharge them in wet years?
Up until now, they can—because they wield so much political power our sheriffs and boards of supervisors, and even our state agencies are not able to protect the public servants and citizens who are doing the hard work of protecting us. That political power comes from having so much power over water, thanks to property-weighted voting.
We need to thank Jack Mitchell, the neighbors he activated, and the citizens of Kings County who pestered their supervisors into standing up against that power. And then we need to call for change in the laws that give them that inordinate power so we can live as citizens in a democracy, not as lackeys in a feudal empire.
Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate and researcher who writes. You can send her your flood stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.