Land of Liberty

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Local writer of the column 'Notes From Home'

My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty… The song floats through my mind as we move toward the 248th birthday of our precious democracy. Sweet land of liberty – how are we doing?

I learned this song a decade before the civil rights movement, though a century after it was due. The radio program “Reveal” has been running a wonderful investigative report called “Forty Acres and a Lie,” on KVPR for the last few weeks ( They’ve documented 1,200 land titles actually given to freed slaves after the Civil War that were taken from those families or never received. They’ve even tracked down many descendants of those families living now, making the injustice 150 years ago very present-day.  

How to right that wrong? Should “reparations” be money or the land itself? What will compensate anyone denied the right to land, whether our Yokuts tribes’ descendants or the Japanese who lost their farms in the Internment? How about the folks who lost their homes in the 2007-’08 mortgage debacle, while the high-rollers got off scot-free?

Let me pull us in, closer to home: the Tulare Lake Basin, our mega-watershed. I’ve been immersed in books dedicated to it (or parts of it) for weeks, sometimes almost drowning. “Rivers of Empire” (1985), Donald Worster’s classic text on irrigation in the West, makes a compelling case that democracy and liberty are almost impossible under irrigation development. The need to centrally organize the movement of water creates an autocratic system, he argues, overriding any notion of popular control. Written before any dream of managing groundwater could be floated, Worster may have missed the role groundwater has played in compromising that control. I would argue that groundwater has been providing some escape from autocracy, and that the conflict over groundwater that we’re experiencing now is the last remnant of the dream of independence from that centralized system battling for its life.

I also think it’s dreams battling dreams, because those people hoping we’ll get control over groundwater pumping before it’s too late are dreaming if they don’t find some way to cut off the potential for making a killing off water, whether stored underground or on the surface. In my never-very-humble opinion, it’s the ability to make a killing that has ravaged our rivers and is hemorrhaging our aquifers. The corporations are the real autocrats, and they will kill (at least legislative intent) before they’ll give up the control over water they’ve achieved.

The new book on water by Greg Collins and Jim Holloway, “Seven Generations: The Past, Present and Future of the Tulare Lake Basin,” offers one idea limiting one portion of water’s profit-making potential: instituting a tariff on exported ag products (although they don’t define “export” and I don’t think they’ve asked real farmers what potential negative impacts on them might result.) At least the tariff idea addresses the public outrage of industrial agribusinesses over-pumping and collapsing aquifers to raise almonds for export, essentially exporting our groundwater overseas. (The Saudis are doing this with alfalfa in Arizona, to the great dismay of Arizonans.)

Unfortunately, Collins’ well-intended book contains many errors, including one glaring mistake I must point out. In more than one place, it states that the boards of the GSAs (groundwater sustainability agencies) are elected. They’re not. They sometimes contain an elected public official (i.e., a city council member or county supervisor.) But the agencies making up the GSAs are self-appointed, and those agencies often are water districts with property-weighted voting. Anyone following this column already knows this means that their boards are “elected” by the district’s landowners based on how much land they own.

There is nothing democratic about the GSAs except the desire, expressed in the legislation that created them in 2014, that they be locally controlled. Given our history in the Tulare Lake Basin of having water controlled by the largest landowners in the state, with corporate headquarters in the largest urban centers, “local control” doesn’t mean local. We did not elect these people. They do not answer to us.

I don’t think it’s impossible for this place, our basin, to be a land of liberty, even under irrigation. I think we start by cracking the water code in places where it gives inordinate control over water to those who only want to make a killing with it, who live elsewhere and can’t see the value of this place, what they’re destroying. For this place to be a land of greater liberty, we have to take a stand—a “stead”—and start defending it as home.

Trudy Wischemann is a 31-year resident of the Tulare Lake Basin. You can send her your home-steading ideas 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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