In a phone conversation with Tulare Lake Basin geographer Bill Preston last month, I found myself saying “I wonder how long the poor are going to take being flooded out.”
“What do you mean?” he challenged, something he often has to do in our conversations.
I’d been reading the flood stories from Planada in Merced County, Cutler-Orosi, Allensworth and Alpaugh in our watersheds. Corcoran, out in Kings County, Boswell’s company town, was fortifying itself, protected by high berms monitored by armed guards at night. These other small communities, homes to people with fewer resources, were caught by floodwaters breaking through weak places in aging levees, most without warning. Many people lost everything they had: their homes, furniture, clothing and food; their cars, their means of making a living.
I’d also been reading an incredible book called “West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement” (2021) by Char Miller, a professor of environmental history at Pomona College. Julian Castro, who was mayor of San Antonio, Texas in 2010 and participated in that movement, wrote the foreword. I don’t know when I’ve read a more compassionate book about the reality of our economic disparities and the possibilities of healing some. It’s grounded in real human geography—the field where human economic realities meet earth processes like weather and stream flows, a necessary frame for understanding how to make improvements in our existence.
One of the things I learned from reading Miller’s book is the bad math that perpetuates the flooding of poor people. The 1921 flood in San Antonio came from a fluke “perfect” storm, the kind that happen more regularly than their estimated recurrence interval would suggest. But changing conditions in the landscape—increased overgrazing in the headwaters, increased building of cheap, collapsible housing on the floodplain as migrants flooded into the city for work—meant that when the flash floods on several streams merged into the San Antonio River, almost everything on the west side of that city was swept away or submerged. At least 79 people drowned, more were injured; many died later of injuries and disease from the flood.
The bad math occurred later, when property values were used to determine where new flood protection structures would be built, where the city would invest its resources. A dam was built to protect the downtown and upper subdivisions, leaving the west side more unprotected than it had been before. It took the election of representatives from that part of the city before the bad math was corrected. As Castro wrote: “As a child of the West Side in the 1970s and 1980s, I became familiar with the marginalization Miller describes—unpaved roads, shoddy drainage, chronically underfunded schools, meager opportunity. But I also saw another side of the story, a more hopeful side: West Siders had been disempowered, but they were not helpless. Time and again they empowered themselves through community organizing and steadily made inroads.”
It took people from both sides of the Anglo-Hispanic/rich folks-poor folks divide to shift San Antonio’s way of evaluating their town from property values to community benefit, to see that it was in everyone’s interest to invest in protecting the lives and the environment of the poorest residents. The improvements that have been made in flood control there, including the parks and San Antonio’s famous River Walk, have benefited the entire town. One hundred years after the horrendous 1921 Flood, San Antonio is a healthier and safer place to inhabit for everyone.
I think it’s time we began to look at our own human geography here in the Tulare Lake Basin and see where we can make a similar change. The big boys’ ownership of lakebed land and their command over water has skewed our human relationships here and drastically deformed the natural environment to grow crops that used to grow elsewhere. It’s time we stopped using property values to determine what’s most important to protect from flooding, and begin to evaluate our communities as the precious commodity that they are. Our towns and people’s homes count more than tomato acreage.
So let me modify my sentence to Bill. I wonder how long we are going to take the poor, and the not-so-poor, being flooded out while the big boys grow tomato paste in the lake bottom.
Trudy Wischemann is a land/water note-taker who writes. You can send her your flood notes 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.