Water? What Water?

by Bruce Patterson, February 17, 2010

“(Out west) there’s almost enough rainfall for your purposes, but one year with another you need a little more than you get. . .

You are to depend hereafter in a great measure on the running streams — in a small part on your arte­sian wells, and in part on the storage of storm waters. Don’t let these streams get out of the possession of the people… Fix it in your constitution that no corpo­ration — no body of men — no capital can get posses­sion of the right to your waters. Hold the waters in the hands of the people.”

— John Wesley Powell, USGS, speech to North Dakota’s Constitutional Convention, 1889

* * *

Watching the AV Film Festival movie “Rivers of a Lost Coast” brought back bittersweet memories. The movie (two big thumbs up) is about the heyday of North Coast fly fishing. My dad was a fisherman. When I was about 12-years-old in 1962 I landed a 15 pound Chinook salmon in the upper Sacramento River. About that time, from inside a small motorboat drifting off Alcatraz Island, I caught a big old Striped Bass. While I was learning to surf at Redondo Break­water my dad kept an eye on me while fishing from the jetty for Bonita. He always caught some, too. When I was real little we camped on the beach in Santa Monica so we could watch the Grunion run­ning. During our first fishing trip up the coast to Ore­gon, my dad paid a rancher so he could fish a river boiling with little silvery fish that you didn’t bait but snagged. I can’t remember what river it was or what the type of fish they were (anybody recall?). But I watched my dad cast out a line with a string of hooks, jerk it and then reel it back in with fish hooked through their heads, tails and everyplace in between.

More to the point, when in the early ‘80s I lived out along the North Fork of Rancheria Creek above Yorkville, for three winters I watched Steelhead migrating upstream (they’re gone now). Downstream at the confluence with the main stem, for thousands of years people had been catching and smoking Salmon. Just yesterday most everybody living here hunted and fished, and there were plenty of opportu­nities for them. The land-based, freeholder, owner-operator culture was dynamic, diverse and, because the valley runs through the richest soft wood forest on earth, unique in its lifeways. The continuity of the land and seasons was reflected in the continuity of human generations.

It’s gone now. I raised two sons here and never was there any doubt that when they flew the coop they’d have to find their places among faraway strang­ers. Nowadays, when virtually every adult in California is from someplace else, and about the same percent­age is clueless about how things were here even 50 years ago, being rootless is the price of belonging. We’re not just without a sense of shared history; we’ve lost our sense of shared physical space.

So it’s logical that with “growth” the culture of Anderson Valley would evolve into a microcosm of National Corporate/Commuter/Consumer Culture — a Technicolor version of the 19th Century Booster Culture that, beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1849, brought Law and Order to the West. Following their Manifest Destiny, the Boosters reduced the land, rivers, creeks, fish, birds and wildlife to footnotes on spreadsheets mapping the real estate market. In Anderson Valley the homegrowns have been disenfranchised and displaced, their sustainable ways of living have become relics in the darkened cor­ner of a backroads museum, and the newcomers have all been programmed to know in their bones that you can’t stop Progress or fight City Hall. Wall Street — and Wall Street group-think — has been calling the shots in Anderson Valley for at least the last twenty years. And that’s why, in terms of the applications of land use laws and water rights, Anderson Valley may as well be an 1850’s mining camp staked out atop the Mother Lode and filled with raggedy refugee dream­ers, schemers, coolies and crooks.

“Water?” The tree stump-looking prospector yells over the roar of his giant water cannon washing away a mountainside. “What water?”

Most everybody in the Valley knows that, because of the exponential growth of water diversions over the last 20 years, the native Salmon and Steelhead are facing extinction. That we would passively allow that to happen is, to me, unconscionable. Yet, because my whole life I’ve watched my home state getting looted, paved over, poisoned and blotted out by “growth,” I know it’s because those who should know better don’t want to and those that do feel helpless. And feeling helpless is a natural and reasonable enough response when it’s absentee landlords, banks, speculator syndi­cates and faceless outsider corporations that are call­ing the shots. The plain fact is that you can’t have Law and Order when the town Marshall is a gambling house pimp moonlighting as the head of a gang of claim jumpers. If you don’t like what’s going on down­town, you either keep your children off the streets or you get yourself a new Marshall with a sense of com­munity.

The controversy over the Big Ditch (the irrigation pond that sprouted like a death cap mushroom beside the road south of Philo) is typical. In these pages many questions have been asked, official protests have been filed in Sacramento and yet nothing happens. There is no human being to explain anything because the authorities have gone off to Alaska on a fishing junket and the pond’s owner is a limited liability cor­poration that is accountable to no one save, perhaps, its institutional investors. It doesn’t matter that the investors are appropriating a public resource for pri­vate profit, or that every penny they are spending to do so is being subsidized by the taxpayers. What they are doing — and not doing — is nobody’s business but their own. They are a law onto themselves.

Or take how the authorities allow that Boonville slumlord to drop his drawers and moon passing tour­ists with his downtown derelict tinderbox garbage heap. All my life here I’ve heard folks complain about that rat-infested firetrap. So what keeps it standing? The Hiatt crew could make that teetering outhouse disappear in a day, and that would include travel time. Snap your fingers and Boonville could have another patch of lush green lawn. And because trying to eke-out a living from the passing car tourists is about all Boonville merchants have left to them — the tourists plus the remains of the Mexican trade — it sure would be nice to build some free public restrooms there. Location, location, location! Even down in Mississippi the folks living in the shabbiest little road towns know that the best way to get passing car tourists to stop is to provide them public restrooms for their squirming backseat kids. Here in Boonville over the course of a tourist season hundreds of people would use the facili­ties and all of them would be mighty grateful. And, as every business person knows, grateful people are gen­erous ones.

So why not raze that blotch of vandalism, seize the property and turn it into something positive? How about engaging in a bit of old-fashioned civic improvement? If the county can expropriate without compensation a working ranch, its livestock and assets because the owner was growing a patch of pot, why not do the same with this two-legged cash register stuck on empty?

Last fall I ran into a well-connected county official and I asked him why that thing hasn’t been con­demned as a fire hazard. I was told that, under the law, it isn’t a fire hazard. Not one to argue the law with somebody who knows much more about it than me, I suggested that the property be condemned as a Public Nuisance. I mean, if a drunken working man — or vagrant — can be arrested and thrown in jail for howling a midnight moon or sprawling out atop a patch of un-sidewalk, surely this slumlord has another thing coming.

I was told that there is no law against owning aban­doned properties. Moreover, because Anderson Valley is freckled with such properties, why would I want to single out and punish this poor fellah?

That ended the conversation. I left it feeling like I was some sort of bigot or something. Yet I must admit that slumlords never have been my favorite sort of people. It’s just the way I was brought up is all. Also I’ve never much respected folks who refuse to show consideration for their neighbors, be they cor­porations, or chin-first delinquents hoofing the boule­vard, or loudmouths in movie theaters, or tenants making racket inside their apartments, constantly barking yard dogs, or neurotic prima donnas driving the public highways like they own them. Developing at least a bit of community spirit was also a part of my upbringing. Then I couldn’t help remembering how, back in 1969, the folks in Fayetteville, North Caro­lina’s Darktown petitioned the Town Fathers to have their neighborhood’s cesspools erased and municipal water mains installed. Judging by the reactions of most of the respectable white men in White Town, you’d’ve thought the petitioners were after their daughters.

Speaking of prima donna landlords lacking in not just a lick of community spirit but also basic business sense, how about the sorry trio — los tres pendejos — that shut down Starr Automotive, the Highpockety Ox and — never thought I’d live enough to have to swallow this — The Boonville Lodge? With civic-minded business geniuses like these guys calling the shots for the rest of us, no wonder folks feel helpless. May as well put up a Motel 6, a Taco Bell Drive Thru and be done with it. Raze the old and bring in the new. Rename Boonville Alta El Lay and hire a DC lobbying firm to push for a six lane freeway coming up from Cloverdale to make our lives more lucrative and convenient.

Said Fredrick Douglass: “Those who profess to free­dom and yet denounce agitation are those who want crops without plowing. They want rain without lightning and thunder; the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *