From Dubai to L.A., Water Barons are All the Same

By Wenonah Hauter

Sometimes the forces working to commoditize our vital natural resources exist in plain sight, flaunting their selfish motives. Other times, they hide behind euphemistic smokescreens, which is far and away more menacing. Regardless of where you may find them, their actions share a common consequence — undermining our collective right to access safe, clean, affordable water.

Last May, I traveled to Dubai for the Global Water: Oil & Gas Summit where I was surrounded by corporate executives discussing their “drill baby drill” philosophy with abandon and no mention of the environmental or societal costs. Then in August, I traveled to Los Angeles to speak at the premiere of a film about powerful corporate interests who conceal their intentions to privatize California’s water supply behind the guise of conservation and disaster preparedness. 

While half a world apart, these scenarios both represent the global force determined to privatize and commodify water for the sheer benefit of corporate profits. My colleague Scott Edwards says it best: “Water-related death, drought and degradation aren’t calamities; they’re profit opportunities.” This couldn’t be truer for California where political wars have been waged over water since the Gold Rush.

The film I attended, Over Troubled Waters, was produced by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta and is narrated by Ed Begley, Jr. It tells the story of the powerful interests that have worked feverishly for over a century to divert water away from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – the largest estuary in the Western Hemisphere – for the sole benefit of creating corporate wealth. This profit-centric mentality has severely damaged the Delta’s delicate ecosystem, made evident by the steady decline and near collapse of California’s salmon populations. Fishermen, farmers and residents have stood together to fight against water diversion for corporate gain for a long time, but the benevolent-sounding Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) has just raised the stakes.

Don’t be fooled – this “Conservation Plan” has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with slaking the thirst of giant agribusinesses selling export crops in the desert, and worse, selling taxpayer-subsidized water to real estate developers. The centerpiece of the BDCP is a pair of 35-mile tunnels that are projected to cost between $20 and $50 billion—a hefty price tag for a state that’s in a perpetual budget crisis. As the film explains, these tunnels are not a new bad idea but the revival of Governor Brown’s Peripheral Canal fantasy, that was defeated back in 1982 by California voters, with a new cheerful but misleading name. 

It was exciting to see L.A.’s Landmark Theater filled to capacity during the screening and panel discussion that followed. Ed Begley Jr.’s comments were inspiring and the discussion between Melanie Winter from The River Project, Conner Everts from the Southern California Watershed Alliance, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla from Restore the Delta and Adam Scow from Food & Water Watch was thought-provoking.

It was particularly important to show this film in Los Angeles where many residents have been frightened into believing that piping more water from northern California is critical to their survival. Nothing could be further from the truth – L.A. actually uses less water today than it did 30 years ago, despite population growth of over 1 million people. The truth is, this project would undermine successful conservation and local water initiatives and take money away from the infrastructure improvements that L.A. desperately needs (there are about 1,400 water main breaks in L.A. every year).  

Not only was it important for the audience to hear about the high environmental and human costs associated with this Peripheral Tunnels boondoggle, but they should also know that L.A. ratepayers could ultimately pick up the tab for the project to the tune of $2,003 to $9,182 per customer.

Unlike the oil, gas and wastewater industry executives at the conference I attended in Dubai, the powerful interests who stand to benefit most from the Tunnels – The Paramount Farming Company, Westlands Water District and Metropolitan Water District – will never be forthright about their selfish ambitions to control California’s water supply. They hope their charade will continue to scare the people of L.A. into paying for something that is against their best interest. But the more we blow their cover, the more people will see through the disguise and not let these water barons hijack our water.

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch (

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2012

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