By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I didn’t go to talk to Dorothy Green because she was dying. I wasn’t looking to do a tribute. I went because I was working up a story about water, about how we use it and abuse it, mismanage it and waste it, and about how the bipartisan water bond being pushed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Dianne Feinstein — with its provisions for new dams and “water conveyance” projects — is a really bad idea. In August, I had gone to a protest rally against the water bond at which Green had spoken, and in the brief interview we had that day, I realized how much of my thinking about water — about Southern California’s wasted storm water, the Central Valley’s reckless and polluting agricultural irrigation, the rage that simmers up in me when people call storm drains “sewers” and dump crap into them —traced back to Green. I had never sat down and talked to her. She gave me her card and told me to call.
A few weeks after the rally, I did. I told her I wanted to follow up on some of the ideas she’d brought up, specifically her claim that California wasn’t really suffering an epic drought. “It’s a manufactured drought,” she’d told me. “It’s being staged so that Big Ag can take control of the water supply and sell it back to consumers at a profit.” I asked if we could set up an interview.
“Sure,” she said, “but you’d better hurry. Because, you know, I’m dying.”
Two days later, we sat down on the couch in the living room of the Westwood home where she’d lived for 40 years and raised three sons. She spoke haltingly, frequently stopping to scold herself for losing her train of thought. The melanoma she’d fought back for 30 years had resurfaced in 2003 as a brain tumor, “the first of a half-dozen metastases,” she explained, and left her struggling to keep her body balanced and her mind from stubbornly wandering. “Oh, brain!” she’d say as she paused, and then continue on in a perfectly articulated explanation of the Reclamation Act of 1902, which stipulated that water subsidized by the state, harnessed and husbanded for agricultural irrigation, should go only to family farms.
Her pauses were mitigated by the urgency of her message, by the sense she had that this was her last chance to save the declining species of the California Delta, including the smelt and salmon, and to put right more than a century of corruption that had robbed California’s citizens of their right to clean, safe water — to drink, to water their gardens, to swim in.
“If water were managed differently — better — there would be plenty of water for the state of California, even with all the people in it now,” she insisted. “What we need is for the state to do its job.” She was calling for a restructuring of the State Water Resources Control Board, “so that appointees to the board could never be fired for political reasons.” She was still working hard to make it happen.
And she was still trying to persuade California’s lawmakers and citizens that “Big Ag,” as she called it, had spent the past century pulling a fast one on the public. At the time of the Reclamation Act, “a family farm was 160 acres,” Green explained. “The Central Valley clearly does not have family farms. And yet they exist on water subsidized by the state. It’s a huge scandal.” As she explains in her 2007 book, Managing Water: Avoiding Crisis in California,the limit was later raised to 960 acres. “But before that, they played a lot of interesting games, setting up farms to make them look like family farms, when they were actually corporations.
“What we want to find out now is who really owns the farms in the Westlands Water District, which is the largest water district in the nation. Nobody has really taken a look at this business of Big Ag, of all these corporations. Who are the real owners? How many owners are there, really, of this subsidized water?”
And then the phone rang, as it would many times while we talked. She took every call. “I’ve got many, many good friends,” she said, smiling. “Really good friends. I’ve been lucky.”
Dorothy Green died on October 13, at the age of 79. She’d been an activist since 1972, and over her lifetime worked on campaign finance reform, lobbied for laws to protect the environment and fought the irresponsible siting of nuclear power plants. But nothing mattered to her as much as water. In 1985, she founded Heal the Bay to address the problem of sewage and other pollution pouring into local coastal waters; 11 years later, she brought together disparate water agencies, politicians and environmentalists to form the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. She was outspoken, but, unlike her mentor, coastal-protection activist Ellen Stern Harris — who once openly wished a tsunami would wipe away coastal development — Green kept her head. Managing Water, published last year by University of California Press, is a straightforward and sober analysis of where California’s water comes from, who gets it and how. There are many things to learn from it, including how to tackle a topic you’re passionate about without alienating the people who most need to hear you.