by Geoff Olson

ChinatownIn the 1974 film Chinatown, a private investigator played by Jack Nicholson unravels an intricate scandal involving the fresh water supply of Greater Los Angeles. Towards the end of the film Jake Gittes confronts  Noah Cross, a villainous land baron played by John Huston.

“How much are you worth?” asks Gittes.

“I’ve no idea. How much do you want?” responds Cross.

The gumshoe doesn’t understand why Cross needs to game the L.A. water supply system when he’s already filthy rich. “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

“The future, Mr. Gittes – the future! “exclaims the Stetson-wearing senior.

Lately I’ve been tracking the severe drought in California, grokking the satellite shots of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with its dandruff-like dusting of snow. The state’s two main reservoirs are at less than 40% capacity and aquifer levels are in decline.  Some scientists believe the state is facing a “mega-drought” lasting decades. Doesn’t sound like a future that many Californians can afford.

Some call it the breadbasket of North America.  You certainly can call it a fruit-basket and nut bar. In 2012, California’s GDP beat out Canada’s GDP, so more than your grocery bill is effected by the state’s economy.

Earlier this week my partner sent me a link to an AP news story headlined, “Thirsty almonds roasted in drought-stricken California water debate.” The story claims that  each tiny almond requires 3.8 litres of water to grow. California supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and the crop consumes 4.06 trillion litres annually: “one-fifth more than California families use indoors.”

In December 2014 Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of drought emergency, and this April ordered cities and towns to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent. Agribiz in the state  faces no such restrictions. Noah Cross would have smiled in approval.

I forwarded the almond story to others on my contact list. One responded, “notice how they bury the fact that the biggest user (by far) of fresh water is livestock – this is an almond-crusted red herring!”

Another responded with a link to a headline from Mother Jones magazine: “You thought California’s drought couldn’t get any worse? Enter fracking.” State documents reveal that almost 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater have been illegally dumped into central California aquifers that supply drinking water and farming irrigation.

“The wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking fluids and other pollutants,” according to The Centre for Biological Diversity. The fracking chemicals  reportedly include arsenic and thallium, a toxin found in rat poison.

There’s more. Another contact responded with a link on how corn syrup-fed honeybees are trucked into the state to pollinate the almond trees. Feeling like Jake Gittes thumbing through a damning bouquet of receipts, I came across an April 2013 story at phys.org. A  team of entomologists from the University of Illinois found a possible link between “the practice of feeding commercial honeybees high-fructose corn syrup and the collapse of honeybee colonies around the world.” Most corn syrup is made from GMO corn, but the team’s report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences did not address this angle.

All this info brought to mind a term coined by Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer Dixon: “panarchy.” This refers to the effects of negative social and environmental trends acting in tandem, significantly worse than any or all acting separately.

Nothing is certain in this Hollyweird trailer for the Anthropocene, though I expect the big players won’t feel much pain. Commodity speculators will leverage any food production problems in their favour, and the shale gas industry will move on to poison aquifers elsewhere. Perhaps some young Silicon Valley wunderkind will give a Ted Talk about manufacturing robo-bees for pollination tasks.

Hopefully sanity – and solar-powered desalination – will prevail over the usual suspects doing a Noah Cross with California’s H2O.  In any case, the state’s condition is an object lesson why it’s madness for B.C. to give away its fresh water to Nestle and other corporate players, at $2.25 per 1 million litres.

“The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!”

The Vancouver Courier, Apr. 24

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