Thursday, September 27, 2012

Water Rights, Nutrient Cycles, & Genocide

The idea that we can pass laws that will provide for adequate clean water for all (or even just for Californians) without limiting population and reproduction, without controlling development and industry, and without consideration for environments and nutrient cycles is to completely ignore where water comes from.  Water does not magically appear at your faucet when you turn it on.  There is no magic that a law can induce that will cause facets and water to appear everywhere people live in perpetuity.  Wells, in fact, do run dry.

That we have fresh water anywhere at all is the result of complex climate and environmental interactions.  When we remove water from the natural systems where we find it, we often change those systems, sometimes irrevocably.  Many of the aquifers (underground sources of water) that our nation depends on-- for food production and for household and industrial uses, are considered fossil water sources.  The water reached those underground aquifers over the millennia, by slow drop by drop percolation through soil and rocks.  In many cases, when we have finally pumped those aquifers dry, which will most likely happen in our lifetimes, the water will not be replenished in time to save our lives.

Meanwhile every time we build on the land or cover it with asphalt, concrete, plastic, or other impermeable surfaces, we increase run off and decrease the percolation of water into our aquifers.   Leveling land, and removing weeds, brush, and other vegetation also increases run off.  Uneven soil surfaces and vegetation slow movement of water and increase percolation.  But of course, this important issue of water percolation is not in our minds; as long as we are thinking magically about water, faucets, and laws.   The irrevocable change that we create by over pumping aquifers, is that the pore spaces in the rock and soil often collapse when the water is removed, permanently reducing the water storage capacity of the aquifer.  All of this leads to increased flooding, by the way.  Flooding is something that we tend to blame on the weather instead of on our own actions.

Removing surface water from rivers and streams and pumping it to far distant landscapes also has consequences for all of us.  I am going to use, for example, the water shed of the Klamath Trinity area of Northern California, because it is the one that I understand the most.  Many diversions are made from the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, some for local agriculture, and some fairly elaborate diversions that transfer water to Southern California for agriculture, household, and industrial use.

While the effects on the local water shed are intense, and a few of them will be briefly discussed  shortly, moving that water to other environments has a huge impact on those environments as well.  Southern California agriculture and development (which is dependent on imported water) has endangered many species that once thrived in the natural dry land environment; and it has contributed to loss of territory for the Indigenous Peoples of Southern California, including loss of hunting and gathering areas and Sacred Sites.  Further, dryland soils are often very fragile, top soil loss due to irrigation dependant agriculture has been extensive—through plowing and other cultivation, as well as mismanagement of land.  Over watering and subsequent evaporation has brought toxic levels of subsoil minerals, which are common in dryland areas, up into the top soil through osmotic action. Over use of agriculture chemicals, which never leach from these dryland soils, has produced other areas of high toxicity.  We see acres and acres of land removed from production—even of native species.  This dryland topsoil toxicity is very difficult, if not impossible to remediate.

Back up in the Trinity Alps, where a goodly portion of this transported water originated, we find verdant forests that produce much of the oxygen we need to breathe, as well as the raw materials for wood and paper products. The trees, native plants, animals, and the people—both Indigenous and settler communities—depend on a complex nutrient cycle that is directly imperiled by water diversions.  And, since we all need to breathe, we are in turn all equally imperiled by these water diversions.

The Klamath Trinity area is now near the southern edge of the Northern Pacific Rain Forest, which used to extend south, all the way through the San Francisco Bay Area.  Tree cutting and water diversions, directly and sometimes indirectly, have extensively changed the environment of what used to be rain forest, and this process is on-going.   

When the ample rains percolate through the forests, naturally occurring nutrients dissolve.  They are carried into streams and creeks, from there to the rivers, and eventually the nutrients and the water heads out to sea. There the nutrients (in low, but adequate amounts) nurture healthy algae and phytoplankton, which in turn are fed on by zooplankton.  The larval stages of many marine creatures feed on the zooplankton, which in turn feed small fish and other free swimming creatures.  Most important to our rain forests--are the salmon, the eels, and the sturgeon--which live much of their lives in the ocean, collecting the nutrients leached from the rainforest, only to return it to the land and release those nutrients at the ends of their lives.  

Fish need water, the nutrient cycle needs fish.  Without the fish, many creatures including bears, foxes, coyotes, and coyotes, as well as the magnificent endangered California condors and the endangered endemic fishers would all suffer, and some might not survive.  The rest of us would gradually see a decline in the productivity of the forests, because of lack of nutrient cycling.  Never mind the effect on the paper and wood industries, the loss of oxygen production would be the main tragedy.  As the trees declined and died, they would become more fire prone, further contributing to oxygen declines and desertification.  

Trees have this wonderful cooling effect on the earth.  They absorb heat and protect and build top soil.  When trees are removed and the soil is bared, top soil degrades quickly, the ground heats up, that heat begins to be reflected back up into the air, causing up-drafts.  Those up-drafts, when they become large enough, create high pressure areas—which in turn effect weather and reduce precipitation, they reduce rain.  A desert is born where a rain forest once lived.  We human beings have created these deserts over and over again all over the planet, and we just don’t seem to be done yet.  Water diversions cause irrevocable changes to environments.

Meanwhile, the Indigenous People of the Klamath Trinity water shed still depend on salmon for their subsistence.  Salmon populations have already been decimated and are in further peril by the current and on-going water diversions.  The People are already suffering health consequences of the lack of adequate amounts of salmon in the diet, which supplies protein, vitamins, healthy essential fatty acids, and minerals.  While this is a watershed wide issue, and it repeats itself in many of the watersheds of the Pacific North West, for one tribe, the Karuk, the health consequences have been documented:

Water diversions directly affect Indigenous People.  Water diversions affect access to Sacred Sites, one example that is close to home and currently in the minds of many people is Winnemem Wintu Tribe with their homelands having been flooded by the Shasta Dam, one of their last remaining Sacred Sites is scheduled to disappear under the waters if a proposed increase in the amount of water impounded is approved.  Another example right here in California comes to us from the Elem people, when the dam at Cache Creek was completed, which raised Clear Lakes waters enough to turn part of their land into an island—without their consent or permission that island was privatized and sold.  The current owners have forbidden Tribal Members any access to Sacred Sites on the island for the first time in the Tribes History. The land they have left has been contaminated by the mine tailings from the Sulfur Bank mercury mine. In both cases, one of the purposes of the dams in question is to supply year around water for diversions to municipal, agricultural, and industrial users.  Water diversions directly affect Indigenous People.

Water diversions affect Indigenous People’s ability to hunt and gather and to follow their cultures, not only as land is inundated, but also as other land dries up because of water diversions, as nutrient cycles are disrupted, and as land is taken up into agriculture, industry, and development.  All the natural environments lost through these processes once supported endemic and useful plants and animals—and those plants and animals supported Indigenous People. Water diversion also directly effects Indigenous People’s ability to fish, as the fish are dependent on natural water cycles.  Water diversion is genocide.  Pure and simple. Genocide.

Many people are lauding Governor Brown’s recent signing of the Human Right to Water Bill.  But the only rights to water mentioned in this bill are those for drinking, cooking, and sanitary purposes. There is nothing in the bill that protects natural environments or Indigenous People’s rights to natural water cycles.  I agree in spirit with the idea that we all should have access to safe, clean, affordable water for drinking, cooking, and sanitary purposes. However, water, as we have seen here, is a very complex issue.  Faucets do not magically produce clean water.  And with Governor Brown’s pet water diversion project looming in our future—I am concerned that this bill will be used directly against water rich environments and Indigenous People.

We need to be thinking in terms of sustainable populations, sustainable communities, sustainable industry, sustainable environments, and sustainable water cycles.  We need to rethink where we live and work--in ways that include naturally occurring water cycles and what those water cycles can support in terms of sustainable populations and sustainable industry.  This is a tall order, I know, but to do otherwise is to delude ourselves that we can pass a law and faucets full of clean water will magically appear where ever people live—without ultimately causing genocide, environmental destruction, and our own demise.

Delusion, in this case, is the art of believing that history won’t repeat itself; but it does, over and over again.  The bookCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” by Jared M. Diamond, gives many examples of societies based on unsustainable practices which ultimately failed.  It provides much food for thought as well. Please educate yourself on the issues we are facing and join the movement for change.  We all need to be conserving as much water as we can every day.

This is not just about Indigenous People, of course. That, which threatens Indigenous People, threatens every single one of us.  Water is not the only issue we must face and solve in our lifetimes.  Oxygen depletion is a huge looming issue that we must also face head on.  For more on the threats to our oxygen supply, which is eluded to in the article please see: CarbonProduction = Oxygen Consumption (PS Oxygen supplies are limited.)

Thank you so much for your time and attention.  Your questions and comments are always welcome!

Copyright 2012, Harvest McCampbell, all rights reserved.  Please feel free to post a link or to share using the buttons below.  Please contact me before publishing of reposting. 

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