Dorothy Green's Final Fight: Before She Died, Heal the Bay Founder Said California's Drought Is a Fake

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.


Which doesn’t mean backing off from the truth. Reading Managing Water, especially its fifth chapter, on state water policy, is like slowly peeling off the veneer of a great mythology: that California is America’s “bread basket” and must always stay that way. California does produce half the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, but “it’s not the economic engine of the state,” Green insisted. “It’s only 3 percent of the economy.” According to the Environmental Working Group, 10 percent of the farms get 67 percent of the state’s water. And 80 percent of the state’s entire water supply is used for crops — mostly low-value, irrigation-intensive crops like cotton. “Let the Chinese grow cotton!” she quotes cotton magnate J.G. Boswell out of Rick Wartzman and Mark Arax’s King of California,predicting there wouldn’t be any cotton grown in California 10 years from now.

“Of course,” the Chinese don’t have any water either,” Green added, laughing. “It was just a handy quote.”

That fifth chapter “is really about how Big Ag has really taken over water politics,” Green confirmed. It’s also about how big agricultural corporations in California are losing interest in the increasingly unprofitable business of farming, as Boswell himself predicted. “Big Ag is interested instead in getting control of the water supply in order to market the water and turn it into a commodity,” Green asserted. “And you do that by creating a drought, so that you can pin down water rights. You do that by inventing a disaster, and get the governor to create a water-rights shortage.

“Water is owned by the people,” Green insisted. “The public-trust doctrine spells it out very clearly — that goes back all the way to Justinian times in ancient Rome.” (“By the law of nature, these things are common to mankind —the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea,” said the Institutes of Justinian.) This was reiterated in the California Supreme Court’s landmark Mono Lake decision of 1983, which invoked the public-trust doctrine to spare the lake’s depleted water. “It’s the state’s job to allocate water in the public interest,” Green said. “No one else should own this water.”

In 1982, when she was “between issues,” as she put it, Green met Ellen Harris, who had already helped to co-author many of California’s landmark coastal-protection laws. Harris had just landed an appointment on the board of the Metropolitan Water District. (“She wanted to know why they were so powerful and how they functioned,” Green told Coast and Ocean magazine two years ago.) Green followed Harris to board meetings and public hearings in Sacramento, and got her first taste of California water politics in 1982, battling the Peripheral Canal, a ballot proposal to transport water from the Sacramento River south via a canal that would skirt around the delicate, and declining, California Bay Delta.

Environmentalists won that battle to stop the Peripheral Canal, and so it was with palpable dismay that Green, in her final months, saw the plan resurface, in carefully coded language, in Schwarzenegger and Feinstein’s water bond. Now tentatively slated for an April ballot, the measure was ostensibly drawn up to confront the historic drought plaguing California farmers. Green acknowledged there might be less water than usual: Eight years of decreased snowfall has starved the Colorado River, which supplies 60 percent of Southern California’s water, most of which goes to the Imperial Valley Irrigation District. Reduced precipitation in the mountains and an early-melting Sierra snowpack have all depleted the state’s reservoirs. But Green insists that were it not for irrational pressure on the water supply due to mismanagement, there wouldn’t be a problem.

“For the last five years, they’ve pumped the Delta dry because the Metropolitan Water District built [the Riverside County reservoir] Diamond Valley Lake and that had to be filled, and the Kern Water Bank [in Kern County] was pumping like crazy. So you’ve got these normal rainfall years, or a little bit below normal rainfall, but if you’re going to fill Diamond Valley Lake and the Kern Water Bank, then you have a real shortfall.” Westlands Water District now has a contract for 1 million acre-feet of water a year — more than 300 billion gallons, as much water as 2 million Los Angeles households use in a year. The Kern Water Bank was recently caught buying up subsidized state water at $28 per acre-foot and selling it back to the public for 10 times the cost. Along with water from Westlands, water from Kern gets poured onto arid soil that many argue should never have been irrigated. The water releases toxic selenium into groundwater, polluting rivers and eroding land with runoff.


“Their water rights ought to be taken away, their land taken out of production and their operations shut down,” Green said.

I could hear the cries of protest as she spoke — what about all those jobs? “California’s farming communities are the most poverty-stricken in the state,” Green said. “The profits, the benefits, go to Stewart Resnick. He’s the biggest farmer in the state — he owns Paramount Farms — and he lives in Beverly Hills.”

A lot has changed since Managing Water was published last year, at least some of it good. In the spring and summer, a federal court ruled that the Central Valley’s water projects were about to bring endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead populations to the edge of extinction, and ordered the water contracts reformed to restore sufficient flows to certain rivers. Orange County instituted a municipal wastewater-recycling program, which Green was thrilled about. She hoped Los Angeles County would move in the same direction. “We’re spending all this time cleaning up water so we can put it in the ocean. We’re throwing it away. Where’s the sense in that?” And she acknowledged that the Schwarzenegger-Feinstein water bond might not be “a total disaster,” as “some of the money would go toward wastewater reuse, conservation, and toward converting concrete channels back into natural streams.

“We seem to be moving toward capturing water and putting it into the ground instead of shunting it away as quickly as possible,” she said. “That’s encouraging. My watershed council has been working on that whole business, looking for ways to salvage storm water and get multiple benefits — built wetlands in the city, create parks, playgrounds and natural systems so we can educate people on how the world really works.”

Another one of Green’s organizations, the California Water Impact Network [CWIN], filed a formal complaint with the state board “asking them to hold hearings on all of these water issues that we’ve been talking about,” to find out who owns the water and how much they get, and get its impact on the environment on the record once and for all. “We’re asking them to hold not just ordinary hearings but hearings that are under oath with cross-examination and witnesses.

“That way,” Green hoped, “by requiring that they’re under oath, the facts will be more, well, factual. And if scientists are threatened with felony charges, or other charges — the scientists won’t be so readily for sale.”

Green continued, “We’re just raising the money to pay the legal fees without any expectation of getting them back, at least not directly. But then we build a record that has withstood cross-examination under oath. We find out what the truth is. The whole truth. Not bits and pieces of it.”

Flashing a smile, Green said, “The hearings will begin in November. We’re scoping it out. We’re excited about it.”

When she said “we,” I imagine she predicted she wouldn’t live to attend the hearings or see the results herself; she was already lamenting that she’d be unable to attend POWER (Public Officials for Water and Environmental Reform), the water-policy conference she initiated (she was scheduled to deliver its opening remarks on November 6). But that wasn’t so important: “We” in this case meant her colleagues at CWIN, and by extension anyone who cares about California and the natural world.

“We’ve got to find some way to get politics out of water,” Green said. “That’s the big issue. Let’s get the politics out of water.”

As our conversation wound down, I had to marvel at Green’s tenacity. So many people have a hard time staying motivated when they’re feeling just fine. She could barely stand up.

“How do you do it?” I asked her. “It’s so depressing to be an environmentalist right now. There’s so much bad news.”

“I agree,” she said. “But if we didn’t have hope about something, why bother being alive?

“You need to get the word out, and then you’ll feel better,” she advised me. “You just need to get the word out.”

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