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Fighting for Our Water, Against Power: Interview with Attorney Adam Keats

May 31, 2018
Center for Food Safety

Adam Keats in Water & Power. Still from the documentary.

Photo credit: National Geographic

By Samantha Henry

The recent National Geographic documentary, Water and Power: A California Heist, highlights the severe impact of corporate greed and its manipulation of water allocation in California. The film follows Center for Food Safety Senior Attorney Adam Keats along CFS's intensive legal battle exposing the mishandling of the Golden State's water supply. The documentary is a fascinating exploration of the loopholes in our water laws. To make matters worse, some companies haven't hesitated to take advantage of these loopholes in the midst of drought. This manipulation has lined the pockets of a few elites, and severely impacted the livelihoods of small farmers and rural communities. Read the interview with Adam Keats below to learn more about what's happening in California.


Why don't more people know about the water crisis in California?

There is actually a lot of awareness, and maybe a bit of unreasonable fear, regarding our regular droughts in California. If anything, we've had an unusually wet hundred years or so, and we should expect that to correct downward, with more droughts, some of which will last multiple years. Additionally, these droughts will be exasperated by climate change. In fact, most states â?? not just California â?? should expect longer-lasting droughts, more severe flooding, and increasingly frequent major storms.

In California, only about 20% of our surface water is used by people, meaning homes and businesses. The other 80% is used by agriculture. In this past drought, cities and industry did a great job of tightening their belts and using less water, while agriculture, as a whole, did not. We ended up with thousands of acres of new almond trees planted in the desert of the San Joaquin Valley, while people across the state took shorter showers and let their lawns die. That's not to say that conserving water in urban areas is a bad thing, but rather that there ought to at least be a comparable effort by Big Ag. Water & Power sheds light on this discrepancy that might not be obvious to the public.

The Wonderful Company, a multi-billion dollar enterprise owned by Beverly Hills billionaires and philanthropists Stuart and Lynda Resnick, is the number one almond and pistachio grower in the U.S., and the biggest water user in California's San Joaquin Valley. The Resnicks refused to participate in the documentary. Is there any evidence of the Wonderful Company attempting to become more transparent about their practices?

I was quite heartened by the attention placed on the almond industry during this past drought. Almonds are just one crop, and in many ways are very nutritious and water-efficient. Yet, the insane amount of acreage devoted to that crop, and especially the incredible number of acres planted with new trees during the drought, highlighted the broken nature of our water distribution system. It should be noted that the vast majority of almonds, pistachios, and other nuts are grown as commodity crops for high-profit foreign export. So almonds became the poster child for the wastefulness of Big Ag for a reason.

Like you said, The Wonderful Co is California's largest almond and pistachio producer, and they did not fare well in the spotlight. They are now desperately trying to improve their image. Mark Arax, for example, wrote a fantastic article describing the lengths the Resnicks are going to improve the lives of their workers. This can only be a good thing.

Our cynical side recognizes that real change never happens without significant pressure. That is why we are continuing our lawsuits and political campaigns.

"Monterey Plus" refers to the effort, now going on 20+ years, to re-write the contracts that govern the management of California's State Water Project. One of its biggest effects is the privatization of the Kern Water Bank and the facilitation of a privatized water marketplace. CFS has been fighting this privatization effort in multiple lawsuits. Do you think that these lawsuits have a real chance? And what is the ultimate goal?

I truly believe that our Monterey Plus lawsuits have a chance to transform water policy in California for the better. We can seriously accomplish a tremendous amount with a legal victory in these cases. But even without a victoryâ??and there are significant non-legal obstacles we'll need to overcomeâ??I think the tide is turning against Big Ag and the "water buffalos" who control our statewide water policy and systems.

Sixty years ago, when they built the State Water Project, the environment and ecology were not part of the conversation. Now they are the start of the conversation, and eventually will be the entire conversation. We're learning that it is impossible to "manage" our water supplies without recognizing the ecological cycles and systems in which that water exists. That is leading to an ecological perspective in water management, which is and will continue to have profound impacts. To the extent they are not already there, the laws will inevitably follow the science.

Since the release of Water and Power, are there any more victories that seem to be closer to the horizon concerning the water crisis?

Probably the biggest one here in California is the downsizing, and even possible elimination, of California WaterFix, also known as the "Twin Tunnels" project. This is a massive 1960's-style boondoggle of a public works project, designed to pipe water from the Sacramento River under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem.

WaterFix is intimately connected to our Monterey Plus litigation. If we're successful in our lawsuit, we'll roll back the amendments to the State Water Project's long-term contracts that set up the current, unsustainable over-pumping of the Delta, and we'll have a good chance of forcing a more ecologically sustainable management of the system. If that happens, many of the problems WaterFix is attempting to address or avoid (or ignore!) could be taken care of, removing the need for the WaterFix boondoggle.

The lack of access to water can't but affect small farmers. How will this shape the future of our food system, for example, our increasing reliance on imports?

The shift from vegetable row crops to commodity tree crops owned by large-scale agribusinesses has had a profound effect on California's food production abilities. Our water policy has played a big role in this by favoring a mechanistic, market-based system, at the expense of a local, bioregional, and ecological-based system. When food and water are mere commodities, it's easy to end up with a system where almonds are grown for export to Asia, while we import our vegetables and fruit from South America.

While our water situation here created this problem, it will also prove to be the solution! Therefore, a sustainable water policy, (for both surface and groundwater), is absolutely necessary. It's hard to see global capitalists maintaining their current control over our food and water in California when the laws get passed and enforced, requiring sustainable use of our shared water resources. That's why they're fighting so hard against us.

Has the reception of Water and Power made you more optimistic about the future overall? You mentioned people are sending you impassioned notes after watching the documentary on Netflix.

Absolutely! Our legal case is very strong, but it's hard to win big cases like this if the political will isn't there to support the legal victory. One thing Water and Power has demonstrated to me is how much support there is for our campaign, and how much it resonates with people. People overwhelmingly want and support fairness in how we use and distribute our limited water resources. There might have been a brief window where lots of people drank the Kool-Aid of "market-based solutions" and privatized public resources. But that's changed. Even if we can't roll back the privatization of the Kern Water Bank completely, (though I firmly believe we can), we can at least stop the movement towards privatization and market solutions elsewhere in the water supply world.

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