A Tale of Two Rivers

There’s been talk back and forth about the drought in the West and possibly taking some of the water from the Mississippi to cover what the Colorado isn’t.

To which I say: LIKE HECK!

This is not about the average person; it’s about corporate greed. Let me lay down a brief history of the Colorado River and why all of this stuff is begging us to think of all the people living in the desert rather than all the corporations who made this mess and should be the ones to own it.

The Mighty Colorado

If you aren’t familiar, the Colorado River was the mighty flow that cut the Grand Canyon. Having been there, I have to say this: there is no picture in the world that can express the sheer awe of the place. The feeling of looking out into a void that seems to stretch forever, to feel the wind, to look down into the biggest hole you will ever see with your feet firmly on the ground, is powerful. It is a place of beauty, wonder, and presence. Yes, it’s mostly a tourist trap these days, but when you compare the human influence on it to just how much of it there is, it’s barely a speck.

Until you realize the mighty river that cut it hasn’t reached the sea in probably longer than you’ve been alive.

What happened?

Industry. Okay, so there’s a lot that goes into this and yes, there are a lot of everyday people using it, too, but the Colorado has been turned to making the desert bloom for many, many years. It literally has not reached the sea since 1960. That means that, yes, unless you are a Baby Boomer or older, you have never lived in a world where the Colorado River has not been completely used up. And I mean completely.

A large portion to that goes to farming. The California almond industry is of course the most notable example, with each almond taking ~3 gallons of water to grow. Yes. That’s per almond. Every. Single. Nut. In a desert. California has also lobbied itself a pretty sweet deal by strong-arming other states into using less water before they have to give any up, but the amount that collectively needs to be given up currently just to squeak by is almost exactly Arizona’s entire allotment.

Arizona doesn’t get out clean, either, though, because its own major agricultural exports include iceberg lettuce. You know, that thing in your salad that’s 0% flavor and 100% water? And even then, because of how lettuce grows, half of it is left rotting in the field every harvest because they don’t include all the leaves that have peeled away from the head to collect sunlight, which is, y’know, the general point of leaves in the first place. Again, this is happening in a desert, where you’d think growing anything with "iceberg" in the name would be a laughably ironic idea.

Ignoring the likes of Nestlé having literally stolen water for literal decades because the US government was simply too overworked to do anything about it, that still means industrial farmers have simply pillaged the available water for many, many years and now they’ve finally managed to use it up, because that’s what Capitalism does: it grows forever in a world with finite resources and when something runs out the whole thing collapses and they run away with your money to leave you with the problems. People talk a good game about impoverished rural areas, but, I might remind, I am from Wisconsin, another agricultural powerhouse, and I understand exactly how farming works because I’ve lived in every kind of community in this state from the big cities to farming towns where cows outnumber people 10:1 and everything in between. There are places here where people literally have a tab at the gas station like in The Big Green. In making Superhero League of Wausau I come from a place of experience because for the most part every location is a place I’ve lived, worked, attended school, have some family or another at, or at least been. Wausau just happens to be in a fabulously rectangular county with a fabulously convenient distance from north to south and east to west that made it a good starting point to try making a game roughly the same size as the venerable Superhero League of Hoboken that inspired it. It could have just as easily been Superhero League of Madison or Superhero League of Kimberly or Superhero League of Heck If I Know, Maybe Try Asking That Bear Over There. I’ve seen the Mom & Pop farms and I know how big business totally screws them, but I’m also familiar with factory farming and how profitable certain crops can be even if you’re an individual farmer. Wisconsin isn’t just dairy; we also have ginseng here, which for many years was a very lucrative export to China, and which we produced a LOT of compared to the rest of the world. It’s not the type of thing that makes you Bill Gates, but it’s definitely the type of thing that makes you pretty comfortable. I’ve also seen that industry start to collapse in recent years because China isn’t exactly known for honest labeling practices and sub-standard product has tarnished the reputation as tariffs rise, but you know what these folks have largely done? Retire comfortably, or else keep producing in hopes things rebound if they can lobby a lower tariff rate for their product specifically. Farmers are not stupid. The almond farmers in California are the exact same type of industry as the ginseng farmers here. There’s plenty of money in their operations. Many of them already are tearing up trees because they know their business well.

The Colorado has long been over-pledged, i.e. states have been granted rights to more than it actually has in it, like how airlines will over-book a flight and then ask someone to volunteer to give up their seat because they don’t care the impact that has on you so long as they make as much money as possible. So the reserves have been getting borrowed out to make up the difference, but like any kind of lending, eventually there is nothing more to give, and when you’re not able to get anything back, you go bankrupt. The Colorado River is currently in a state of bankruptcy and no amount of turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth is going to change that because the households are not the force driving it. 80% of California’s water use is agricultural and it grows 80% of the world’s almonds. That puts 80% of that 3 gallons per nut all in one place. That’s in no way sustainable, especially in a desert. Urban use is only 20%. 50% of the total water in the state isn’t actually "in use" as much as protected for environmental reasons. Receipts. So while you may hear a statistic of only 40% of the water use is for agriculture, that relies on definining "leaving it the heck alone because we’re too on fire already" as a "use." No matter how you slice it, factory farms are using 4 times as much as ordinary people. So no, it is not your fault.

The problem comes in where the individual states come into play: California strong-armed itself a position where it’s last in line to give up any water usage and it’s just as much a desert as anything east of it. Arizona, naturally, doesn’t want to give up every drop it has because there needs to be enough to support the average person, but it’s in one of the crappiest positions of the agreement and has very few options because it doesn’t have a whole lot else to work with.

So, everyone is now looking elsewhere for their water needs.

The Mighty Mississippi

Unlike the Colorado, the Mississippi runs through places that are generally fertile and get rain. The needs of the populace have never been so much that it’s been completely pillaged and it reaches the sea to this day, ending in the fertile Mississippi River Delta. People have pointed out that after a certain amount of it, roughly by Louisiana, there isn’t even any power generation going on with it, so all that water is just uselessly going into the sea.

Only it’s NOT useless. It’s supporting wildlife. It’s useless to INDUSTRY, but it’s an essential thing to have for many ecosystems. Saying that it would solve the West’s water problem if they could just nicely take some of it because we’re not doing anything with it ignores the ecological impact, which is something that people obviously don’t think about for the Colorado, and whatever extinctions may have come with that and whatever effect that had on the climate. We don’t need to be doing MORE of that.

As a Wisconsinite, it may seem odd that I’d be so protective of a plentiful water resource, seeing as my state is surrounded by water on 3 sides. But the Great Lakes have been under subtle attack for many years as well. Turns out when you share the world’s largest freshwater resource with other states and Canada, you get to deal with all the businesses who want to use it for things like coal slurry or to send it overseas.

The Great Lakes may SEEM to be very big, but so was the Aral Sea, and the Soviets piped it out for use in farming starting in the 1960s. Sounding familiar? The Aral Sea went from the 4th-largest inland body of water in the world to 90% bone dry by 1997, with the remainder of it getting quite a bit saltier, causing massive environmental devastation and destroying, among other things, a once bountiful fishing industry, which had a large economic impact in the coastal communities of multiple countries. Seeing that, the Great Lakes states and 2 Canadian provinces made a compact to protect the Great Lakes to prevent the same from happening here. And there have been some pretty harsh reminders with the water having been controversially shipped in bulk to Asia in 1998. Just because something is big never, ever means it’s infinite. The Great Lakes MUST be protected, and so must the Mississippi, because the Aral Sea and Colorado River are examples of what happens when you let industry simply take what it wants. It will literally drain a whole sea if you let it. I know it sounds impossibly cartoonish, but it’s absolutely true. Captain Planet may have had some pretty outlandish villains, but only because it had to condense entire industries into individual characters.

If the West wants our water, it’s not going to be without a fight. And we’re used to fighting.

Not so high and dry?

There’s a much, much bigger, AND CLOSER, water source that businesses could never, ever use up: the ocean. California has one of the biggest coastlines in the US and desalination has been a technology for basically ever in some form or another. Yes, it’s expensive, but big business made this mess and big business can darn well fix it.

When we talk about the water usage, this isn’t about the average person brushing their teeth in the morning; it’s about turning mass amounts of water into profit. Anyone who knows me knows I’d be perfectly happy in a world without iceberg lettuce. I can live without almonds that aren’t grown sustainably. We all adjusted to a world where macadamia nuts left store shelves; we can adjust to one where almonds aren’t a major component of every can of mixed nuts on a store shelf or simply sold alone. We can have the audacity to expect the government to tell Nestlé exactly where to go spending literal years as a thief of water during water crises and fine them the back charges they simply stopped paying because they knew they could get away with it. We’re talking about international corporations and factory farms, not your Mom & Pop homestead. And we’re talking about them doing this in an area that never was able to support anything remotely resembling grass or trees; this is all cactus territory. The fact all of this farming exists in these areas is because of plundered resources. The corporations knew they were taking more than there was and did it all intentionally for their own profit. They’re not going to stop doing it unless we force them.

The average person, yes, needs that water to brush their teeth in the morning. But the average person is not to blame here. They’re absolutely going to suffer, because the corporations will make them shoulder it if they can, and with the amount of money they have, they absolutely can, but the solution is not to take water from people who have managed it better. The solution is to make the greedy hogs who caused the problem pay up to solve it if they want to keep doing what they’re doing.

If you’re in the West, I am not your enemy. If this were a matter of a major drought through nobody’s fault, I’d be happy to share some water to help you through it. I see this as a relief effort just as much as you do. I understand that your basic needs are not being met and that’s nothing I want for anyone.

But this isn’t about you and it never has been in the eyes of the people with the power. This is about the executives in their lofty corner offices running the math and deciding they don’t care if you and everyone you care about go thirsty. If we pump water over to the desert, it’s just all going to be scooped up by them and if you’re lucky, they’ll sell it to you. Big business stole the water; they burned the world and dried it up; they’re going to pillage our water, too, if we let them, and then we’ll be in no better position. I know this because Nestlé, mustache-twirling villains they are, already did this in Michigan. Remember Flint? They have a perfectly good source of water in spitting distance that Nestlé didn’t want them to be able to access for clean water because that would cut into profits. Nestlé has gone on record saying they don’t think water is a human right, but buying your own water back from them sure seems to be, even if they paid $0 to literally steal it. If Nestlé and the other corporations were made to desalinate all their water instead of taking from the same pool you’re drinking from, you’d never have to go thirsty and the Colorado might even reach the sea again someday. If you want to be angry, be angry about all the big businesses stealing it out of your mouths. Asking us to let them steal it out of ours just makes everyone worse off.

This is being played out like an "us vs. them" between ordinary people, but it’s absolutely not. That’s just what the rich elite are telling ordinary people in the West as they argue over whose profits are going to be impacted behind closed doors. This is a fight between megacorps in the West and ordinary people out on this side of the Rockies. And it’s a fight that I, as a Wisconsinite, have seen before.

If you’re out West, don’t yell at me for not giving you my water; yell at the wealthy corporations and factory farms who have already marked you as a casualty of their use of yours.