I was interviewing a local groundwater official last week about the influence of nondemocratic water districts in nuts and bolts, everyday water issues. He was not much interested in that question, but he had a perfect frame for what ails us. 

“We’ve done a great job of creating benefits from water, turning empty land into bountiful crops. What we haven’t done, and are about 40 years overdue, is define how to do that without harming the neighbor. That’s what we’re trying to do now.”

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about his perfect frame. All sorts of questions follow from that simple one, of course: who is the neighbor, for instance, or who are the neighbors? How much harm? Does just a little harm to a huge number of neighbors outweigh a huge benefit to one? Can benefits actually trickle down eventually to those neighbors to balance out the little harm?

I found myself taking his perfect frame and expanding it to the next level: the neighborhood. We tend to think America has been built by individuals, and we guard our individual rights to compete against each other (the neighbor) in honor of the belief that this makes America great. I think the truth is more complex: that America has been built by individuals in communities (neighborhoods) cooperating with each other at least half the time or more while we compete individually against the poorhouse and death. Sometimes the neighborhood rescues us from one or both.

The truth is the neighborhood has also suffered from the depletion of groundwater, in some places immensely. Subsidence from groundwater withdrawal has caused major injury to community infrastructure, including highways, railways, flood levees and the canals that deliver surface water, which taxpayers are finding themselves called on to pay for. Sometimes the subsidence is accompanied by collapse of the aquifer itself, making it unable to soak up the next outpouring from the skies. Municipal wells have to be deepened, water quality declines—these are just a few of the costs the neighborhood pays when individuals race each other to the bottom, to the last drop.

The return of Tulare Lake—massive surface floodwater seeking its lowest elevation, temporarily deterred by manmade constructions thought to be owned by individuals who are not thinking about not harming the neighbor or the neighborhood—has given us a glimpse of the task before us. What will it take to define and enforce the critical goal of not harming the neighbor, much less the neighborhood?

“What If?” asked Walter Goldschmidt in his later years, the anthropologist who’d nailed the importance of the neighborhood to the Central Valley Project’s purposes for being constructed. What if we’d had smaller-scale, family farms developed in the CVP’s service areas on the Westside, having enforced the laws prohibiting delivery of surface water for more than 160 acres? Goldschmidt’s list was impressive, if also humorous: 

“Let your imagination play with what the West Side would be like if that had happened. Instead of that green desert, there would be some 100 thousand people; 30 or 40 grocery stores, dozens of furniture and appliance stores; there would be high schools with their bands and football teams and who knows how many beer joints and mom and pop stores and bowling alleys and the like. There would be at least ten McDonald’s and Taco Bells; there would be 40 or so Little League teams with 800 parents screaming at the umpires and 170 preachers to remind them they should love their neighbors. Certainly there would have been at least two more Republicans in the State Legislature and probably another in Congress…. Contemplate this the next time you drive along Highway 5.”

This was written in 1991, before the erosion of these qualities in East Side towns had become apparent. I’ve often been glad that Goldschmidt’s scenario did not take place, with two decades of drought since then and now floodwater filling the geomorphic trough that I-5 skirts. But his point is still clear. The costs to water (and now, dewater) the West Side, paid by American taxpayers, have far outweighed the benefits to the neighborhood. That money’s been spent for the benefit of a few who, when push comes to shove, don’t remember who made their wealth possible, much less that the neighbor counts.

How not to harm the neighbor—that is the task before us, we in the neighborhood.

Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate 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.

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