BAY-DELTA TRIBUNAL PUTS STATE & NATIONAL LEGAL SYSTEM ON TRIAL
California’s Proposed Twin Tunnels Case to be Heard
Antioch, CA – “What would the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem say?” is the question a panel of judges will consider when examining a case brought before them in the first-ever Bay Area Rights of Nature Tribunal based on an international rights of nature tribunal held in Paris during the climate talks last December. It’s a question gaining ground as dozens of U.S. and international communities and a handful of countries have begun recognizing rights and legal standing for ecosystems as a new framework for environmental protection. The tribunal will be held on April 30 at the Nick Rodriguez Community Center in Antioch, CA 9:30 AM-2 PM.
The case being brought before the tribunal address nature’s, community, and human rights violations presented by Governor Brown’s water policies, and particularly his proposed Twin Tunnel plan, which would significantly reduce flows needed for Delta waterways and fish. The tribunal is being put on by the Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance (BARONA) —a network of organizations seeking to explore how recognizing legal standing for ecosystems can put new governance tools in the hands of communities.
In addition to detailing rights violations, Tribunal witnesses and experts will also offer solutions to water flow and economic development challenges that protect, not injure, human and nature’s rights. “We are pleased to work with BARONA to make the case for the San Francisco Bay-Delta,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director for Restore the Delta, a group that has been working to fight the governor’s plan and support sound water alternatives.“The Delta is an imperiled national treasure — a home for wildlife, fisheries, and human culture. After 30 years of over-pumping, the Delta Tunnels proposal would complete the destruction of the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas. Those who view the Delta as simply another water source to be drained are in for a fight. The people and wildlife of the Delta will not be erased.”
“The proposed project not only violate nature’s rights and human rights, but also illustrates that our laws legalize such harms,” adds Linda Sheehan of the Earth Law Center. “This Tribunal is about confronting a system of laws that places people and nature in harm’s way, and demonstrating a new way forward.”
Rights of nature is a global movement that has been named one of the Top Ten Grassroots Movements Taking on the World by Shift Magazine. International Tribunals in Paris, Lima and Quito have recognized nature’s rights, as has the Pope and other leading figures. “Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature acknowledges that the ecosystem—in this case the Delta itself—is a rights-bearing entity,” concluded Shannon Biggs, Director of Movement Rights, a group that assists California communities pass laws that place the rights of communities and ecosystems above corporate interests. “Mendocino County and Santa Monica have already recognized these rights in order to ban fracking and develop sustainability initiatives.”
We are honored to share the following article written by Movement Rights board member, Maude Barlow. Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and the author of Blue Future, Protecting Water for People and thePlanet Forever. She is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (‘Alternative Nobel’) for her work on water; has served as the Senior Advisor on Water to the United Nations; and was a leader in the campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the UN, among many other achievements.
While there is no doubt that greenhouse gas-induced climate change has dramatically affected the snowfall in the Sierras, reducing the amount of run-off the state depends on for water renewal, there is another story here that has to be told.
The true story is that for decades, there has been massive engineering of the state’s water supplies through pipelines, canals and aqueducts to supply a relatively small number of powerful farmers in the Central Valley with water.
Eighty percent of all water in California goes to agriculture, much of it to grow water-intensive crops for export. Alfalfa hay, largely exported to Japan, uses 15% of the state’s water. California produces 80% of the world’s almonds and their production uses another 10%.
But instead of challenging these practices, the new government restrictions only apply to urban centres and not to the big agricultural producers who hold powerful political sway in the state. For years, there has been a free for all as big industrial farms turned a renewable resource that belonged to the people into a commodity owned and controlled by private interests. Having secured “water rights,” some of these corporate agribusinesses also hoard, buy and sell their water.
The problem in California, as in so many parts of the world, is that water is seen as a resource for our convenience and profit and not as the essential element of an ecosystem that gives us life. As well, water is more and more seen as a form of private property and powerful forces increasingly resist any attempt by governments to limit their abuse of water.
Global Outlook on Water
It doesn’t help that we were raised with the “myth of abundance” believing that we can never run out of water. Like many myths, this one is wrong.
The UN now says we have 15 years to avert a full blown water crisis and that by 2030, demand for water in our world will outstrip supply by 40%!
Five hundred renowned scientists brought together by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon said that our collective abuse of water has caused the planet to enter a “new geologic age” – a “planetary transformation” akin to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Already they said, a majority of the world’s population lives within a 30 mile radius of water sources that are badly impaired or running out.
More children die of water-borne disease that all forms of violence put together – including war.
So how are world leaders and global institutions dealing with this threat? Very badly and with no plan. When water is discussed at world gatherings, it is as a by-product of climate change.
There is little real understanding that when we remove water from water-retentive landscapes, we dramatically and negatively affect the climate. Cutting down the Amazon forest has led to a perilous drop in rain. For the first time in living history, once water-rich Sao Paulo Brazil is experiencing severe drought.
Maude Barlow, speaking on Rights of Nature to the United Nations, April 27, 2015
In our world, nature is seen as a form of property, a resource for our pleasure, convenience and profit. The legal systems in most of our countries are not protecting the earth because they are not meant to. In fact, our legal and political establishments perpetuate, protect and legitimize the continued degradation of the earth by design, not accident. Most laws to protect the environment and other species just regulate the amount of damage that can be inflicted by human activity.
… Communities around the world are creating a new form of civil rights movement. They are passing local laws that assert their right to protect their local environment from harmful mining, fracking, pipeline and other invasive practices. What we need to do is restructure the global economy into many local economies based on the needs of the biosphere. When this happens says Shannon Biggs, founder of US-based Movement Rights, “communities will become true stewards of their ecosystems, protecting and upholding these natural rights.”
The solutions to a water secure California and world must be based on some fundamental principles. Water plunder must stop. Governments have to stand up to the industries, powerful private interests and bad practices destroying water all over the world.
Governments must place priorities on access to limited supplies, especially groundwater, and ban private industry from owning and controlling water. Any industry found polluting water must be denied access. Water is the common heritage of humanity and of future generations. Water must never be bought, hoarded, sold or traded on the open market. Water services must be a public service delivered on a not-for-profit basis.
Water is also a human right. In our world, private interests increasingly control water. To add insult, they often pay next to nothing for the water they abuse. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is the greatest human rights issue in the global South. But lack of access to water is no longer confined to poor countries. In the name of austerity, thousands have had their water services cut off in Europe and many thousands suffer from lack of water in Detroit Michigan because they cannot afford the very high price of water.
Importantly, we must learn a new reverence for water and understand that nature put water where it belongs. We destroy watersheds at our peril.
We need a global plan of action that includes:
Watershed protection, conservation and restoration;
National and community programs to replenish water-retentive landscapes;
Watershed sharing and governance;
Models of food and energy production that do not harm water;
Strong laws to prevent eutrophication;
Consideration of the impact on water of trade agreements;
Strong local, national and international commitment to put water protection at the heart of all laws and policies.
Will the people of California take these measures to protect and restore their water? Let us hope so. But there are entrenched and powerful interests standing in the way of good policy in that state and it will take some courageous officials and citizens to call them out.
These same kinds of interests are operating here in Canada too. In their name, the Harper government has gutted every single law that once protected our water. Canadians must not be fooled. California is the canary in the coal mine. There is no place on earth safe from water abuse in a world running out.
Movement Rights assists communities confronted by harmful corporate projects to assert their right to make important decisions that impact them by passing new laws that place the rights of residents (and nature) above the claimed legal “rights” of corporations. At the heart of our work is the belief that asserting our right to create the kind of place we want to live and reining in corporate power is the next evolution of the civil rights movement. Over 160 communities across the United States have already asserted their right to local self-government and stopped unwanted harms.
The drought, now in its fourth year, has prompted the state government to announce measures to reduce water consumption. That in itself isn’t shocking, given the increasing severity of California’s water situation, but what is surprising is that it took this long to enact serious measures.
A Desert Full of Pools
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the front-page photo by Damon Winters for the New York Times says it all, especially about human hubris. Swimming pools, big houses run on a/c, greenery on one side, a parched desert on the other. (See more photos and graphs here). It is a picture that is representative of our society today – humanity giving the finger to nature, as well as to future generations. We will take what we want today, damn the consequences tomorrow.
Imagine someone 50 years from now looking at this photo. Surely future generations will ask, “what were they thinking?”
Nearly 40 million people live in California. Over 20 million people live in southern California in a predominantly arid landscape. Yet for the last century or more, humanity has conquered it, bending nature to our will. If you build it, goes the ruling mentality, people will come, and come they did. And if you need more water to sustain the people, as well as their lawns and swimming pools, take it, from the Owens Valley to the Colorado River to possibly soon the Sacramento Delta.
Questioning the Status Quo
For decades, barely anyone has questioned this model of development. Perhaps now that the New York Times is raising questions, it should give us hope that humanity is waking up and growing up.
Kevin Starr, a historian with the University of Southern California toldThe New York Times, “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here.” Moreover, Dr. Starr noted that the state “is not going to go under, but we are going to have to go in a different way.” That is obvious, and it applies not only to California, but also to the world. Business as usual cannot go on unabated without serious environmental and social consequences.
Even California governor Jerry Brown seems to get it. Again, from the New York Times:
“You just can’t live the way you always have,” said Mr. Brown, a Democrat who is in his fourth term as governor. “For over 10,000 years, people lived in California, but the number of those people were never more than 300,000 or 400,000,” Mr. Brown said. “Now we are embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried: 38 million people, with 32 million vehicles, living at the level of comfort that we all strive to attain. This will require adjustment. This will require learning.” (emphasis added)
Overcoming a Short-Sighted Mentality
Yes, Governor Brown seems to understand the reality of the drought crisis, yet while he talks the talk, at the same time he is also supporting fracking, a very water intensive extractive industry.
And one of his major projects for the state is building tunnels to bring water from the Sacramento Delta region to southern California. He needs to take a closer look at his words on not living the way we always have, because that should mean taking care of our communities today, and thinking of the generations to follow.
The water restrictions, for now, are targeted at urban users. However, the agriculture industry uses nearly 80% of California’s water, much of it from groundwater aquifers that are rapidly being depleted, and much of it for crops that are being exported abroad. Restrictions are coming, but how much for one of the state’s biggest industries remains to be seen. But the realization that growing water-intensive crops and particularly those slated for export—is sinking in (not to mention cattle raised for beef, which is the most water-intensive meat).
Where is Nature?
Missing from most discussions on the drought is Nature. Citizens and businesses might be inconvenienced by having to reduce water usage, but what about the flora and fauna that need it to survive?
According to a 2012 California Department of Fish and Wildlife report “California’s wildlife depends on water, just as its citizens do. With water resources becoming increasingly rare, a domino effect takes place in the ecosystem.” Humans are part of the web of life, not separate, and we have a responsibility to take care of our ecosystem. Supporting alternative concepts such as rights of nature and rights of waterways should be on the table.
Leading the Way
Hopefully the mentioning of limits to growth in the New York Times will lead to more discussion and acceptance of it. We live on a planet with finite resources. Now, with increasing and unknown impacts of climate change and continued population growth (8-10 billion people by 2050), it’s time to accept some hard truths.
California has been a leader in many ways. Maybe this time it will be a leader in understanding that there are limits to growth and that we need to live within our means. Not only for our sake, but for that of future generations.
Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies. Her work is focused on the interconnectedness of population growth with women’s empowerment, human rights, consumption, alternative economies, and the environment. Suzanne She is the author of several reports, includingPeoples’ Rights, Planet’s Rights: Holistic Approaches to a Sustainable Population and Prioritizing the PHE Approach: Linking Population, Health, and Environment for a Better World. As research director with the International Forum on Globalization, she was a contributing author to Paradigm Wars: Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization. She is a founding member of the Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance, a wilderness lover, a dog blogger, and a good friend of Movement Rights.