Water and Oil
By Michelle L. LaPena
The Great Central Valley of California used to be a floodplain. It was a marshy wetland before non-Indian settlement began, full of insects and game. Major villages of Native people lived along the banks of what are now the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The Sacramento River in the north, gathering from its Feather and the American River tributaries, flows southward through the valley for over four hundred miles. In the San Joaquin Valley, its namesake flows roughly northwest for almost four hundred miles, picking up its tributaries, the Merced, Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and Mokelumne Rivers. Sadly, over one hundred years, the Central Valley has become a watershed that has been sucked dry of water and oil.
Native people call the Earth our mother, and water is her blood, sacred, flowing, creating a world that humans can live in. Our blood carries oxygen into our bodies, circulating, gathering impurities and waste, carrying them to the organs that can process them, in a loop that has no end until we die. Our mother has a circulatory system as well. It is the water cycle: the air, water, soil, and sun are necessary parts of the system. Water is the source of all life on Earth, yet there is another liquid in the system that humanity does not yet comprehend, and that is oil. It is the decomposing remains of the past, sacred, like water, in the soil.
The soils in the Central Valley are deceptively fertile, as most grassland soils are. The muck that accumulated over time is dense and loamy, with deep-running nutrients. Floodwater churned the soil, turning it with high tides, stirring the feces of animals and decomposing matter. Native grasses grew, lived, went to seed, and died for millennia. Tubers and roots were tilled by the claws of the grizzly and their game, the squirrels, gophers, and weasels. Although most people think of the grizzly only as a predator, it was also Nature’s earth mover.
With the eradication of the grizzly, the valley soils were left open to the taking. Native tribes along the rivers, who burned the grasslands to clear it of excess insects and allow for travel, were the target of government-sponsored bounty programs. Early California laws were geared toward clearing the land of “hostile” Indians; the state authorized payment of fifty cents per scalp and five dollars per decapitated head. Fear drove Natives deeper into the hills, opening the valley to non-Indian settlement. The Great Central Valley, a well-tended garden, suddenly lost its caretakers.
The new owners saw the land’s potential for agriculture. The water and the elevations were perfectly suited for widespread farming. Within a few decades, land in the San Joaquin Valley was cleared of remnants of what remained from before. Grasslands were turned under and creeks were straightened into ditches. The river was levied and the land was quartered. Everything became straight and flat. Round edges of rivers became cement canals, with gates and meters. Water, once abundant and belonging to no one and everyone, was now property to be bought and sold. Indian land was granted in forty-acre quadrants to the highest bidder.
The rich soils and favorable weather of the 42,000-square-mile Central Valley enticed settlers who were unfamiliar with its natural rainfall patterns, and they began intense irrigated agriculture on the lands that were not as subject to flooding. They soon found themselves troubled by frequent floods in the upper Sacramento Valley and a general lack of water in the lower San Joaquin Valley. The Sacramento River drains the northern half of the state, which receives between 60 and 75 percent of the precipitation in the valley, and flows into the San Joaquin River, which receives only about 25 percent of the rainfall. The Great Central Valley is like a toilet, the bowl filling up north, and flushing out into the south. Because water was needed for intense, irrigated agriculture in the south, it was sought out in every manner: wells were drilled, canals and reservoirs were built, and government subsidies supported the effort.
As early as 1873, Barton S. Alexander completed a report for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the first attempt at creating a Central Valley water project. Alexander was a military man who graduated from West Point and worked his way up to lieutenant colonel. An engineer by training, he sought to build things that would last and endure like a lighthouse on the rocky Minot’s Ledge off the New England coast or the Smithsonian Institution’s castle. In his later years, his attention turned to water works in the Central Valley, believing that he could lay the foundation for a new civilization.
In 1904, the Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation) latched on to the hope that a complicated water system could work, but a system did not take hold until a series of droughts in the early 1920s. In 1933, the State of California passed a law authorizing the Central Valley Project (CVP), which included the sale of bonds to raise nearly $170 million for the project. However, the bonds were not sufficient and the Great Depression hit the Central Valley around that same time. After much back and forth between the state and the Army Corps of Engineers, the CVP eventually cut through the natural flushing system that created the fertile valley soils. The era of Big Agriculture began.
The first wave of immigrants were now landowners, and new immigrant farm workers became the thread in the fabric, new ones always being added, holding the system together. To make farming profitable, immigrant workers, especially those lacking citizenship, were paid the lowest wages they would accept. To further cut costs, particularly the high cost of water that was delivered through the CVP, the farmers drilled. Drilling rigs found the water table plentiful in the beginning after thousands, if not millions, of years of natural ecological flushing. Water seeps, it creeps and leaks into the tiny crevices between each piece of dust. The molecules of water search for each other underground. The dowsers, drills, and pumps found it wherever it hid below the surface.
In the early days of San Joaquin Valley farming, farmers grew traditional row crops: corn, tomatoes, peas, lettuce, strawberries, onions. But the value of row crops per acre, with the high cost of surface water from the CVP, was dwarfed by the value of permanent crops, including citrus, nuts, and grapes. The Central Valley slowly began to shift away from traditional food crops to high-value export items that came from permanent planting. To cut costs, most landowners continued to search for every drop of groundwater. The water table, once flush with millions of years of water drainage, was tapped out, and the land began to sink.
Today the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the valley floor is subsiding at an average rate of one to two feet per year. Total subsidence since the early 1900s ranges from twenty-five to forty feet, depending on the location. The Corcoran Clay that protects the deepest aquifers, acting as a filter between the upper and lower waters, is compacting. Like the hardening of a liver with fatty tissue, the Corcoran Clay is losing its tiny gaps that filter the water, back and forth, through alluvial movements that the human eye will never see. As with cirrhosis, filtering spaces in compacted clay cannot be restored.
What lies beneath is the easiest to forget. Like burials that we walk away from and never see again, most people don’t like to think about what is underground. What one cannot see does not exist. But the underworld is a vast system of rivers and tides; it dries and replenishes, flows and ebbs. Without our interference, the system replays the cycles, the seasons of flood and drought and the longer cycles that replenish the system over centuries. We cannot know the centennial patterns because we have already interrupted them. Most of us cannot understand our part in it because we cannot see it.
Driving down Interstate 5 today, one would have difficulty reconciling the history of the great watershed valley with what the eyes see. The skin of the soil hangs from the bones of parallel mountain ranges, a starving cow. Dust whips into devilish whirlwinds between blackened almond and citrus trees. The trees are black with drought, not from fire—as if they are living off the oil being fracked below the surface. The groundwater in the upper levels of the soil is nearly gone. Oil is lighter than water; it rises to the top when given enough space, a crack, a well.
As some farmers drilled ever deeper to water permanent crops, from four hundred feet to over twelve hundred feet in some places, instead of water, they found tarry sands made of compacted compost of millennia. Our mother has another vital fluid in her circulation, oil. The discovery triggered decisions: whether to find water and grow food, or to drill deeper, crack the rock and suck out the oil, frack rock.
Oil production is not new to the San Joaquin Valley. In 1899, “black gold” was discovered in a shallow, hand-dug oil well on the west bank of the Kern River. The Kern discovery triggered an oil boom, and a forest of wooden derricks grew seemingly overnight on the grasslands north of Bakersfield. Kern County oil fields produced a majority of the oil from California, and made it the top oil-producing state in the nation. Like in the Gold Rush that preceded the Kern River oil discovery, speculators flocked to the San Joaquin Valley and oil fields became as common as farmlands. Gushers at Coalinga, McKittrick, and Midway-Sunset fields kept the pumps going.
The San Joaquin Valley is home to twenty-one giant oil fields, which have produced over one hundred million barrels of oil each. There are also four “super giants” that have each drawn over one billion barrels of oil from the Earth. Oil derricks, many vacant, are fixtures on the landscape, like remnants of an ancient forest. The scent of oil, as moss, hangs from the dead oaks that linger on the low sloping foothills on the oak savannah above the valley floor. The oaks were mighty giants, now fossils, like stone sculptures that only remain for the shade they might give. Their roots cannot process oil. Steam injections into the ground, intended to drive viscous crude oil into the pumps, drives it up though the sandy loam, through the upper mantle. Roots, with their suction, cannot know that the water has turned to oil. The tiny pores pull and seek water from the upper aquifer; instead they grab onto the vapors of steamed oil and carbon dioxide.
The trees may not know that humans have tampered with the ground, needling into unwilling places that can’t protect themselves. Oil producers and water purveyors perform surgery on the Earth, not knowing her chances of survival beforehand, never considering whether it should be done at all. It is elective surgery that cannot be undone. The pores in the Corcoran Clay cannot be repaired by injecting new liquid, the subsidence cannot be filled with chemicals, and the billions of gallons of crude oil cannot be replaced with transfusions. To face these facts may be too difficult for many to consider. But ignorance is the one way to guarantee that we will keep doing it, keep pulling from the Earth, not knowing if it will kill the human race in the end. Only a fool, a glutton, or a thrill seeker takes that kind of chance.
Native people believe that we are made from our mother, the Earth. We were created here to be a caretaker. Many of us believe that humans can tend to the land, manage natural resources in a sustainable manner, and preserve the environment by taking responsibility for our actions. The Earth cannot speak in words that people can hear, but she can tell us in other ways, as she is now. She is telling us in storm, in fire, in flood, and in drought—the language that has always told us her needs. We don’t always heed her warnings to move to higher ground, or to clear tinder from the forest with controlled burning, or to stop wasting water. We still ignore her message to stop draining her blood made of oil, because it, like water, is sacred.
It is easier to understand the sacred nature of water because humans need it to live. But oil is also from the Earth. When we draw it from her, by steam, pump, or frack, we may be causing an injury that cannot be reversed. Unlike water, which can cycle through the atmosphere and the soil, oil may not be meant to burn. It gathers in places underground for a reason, some reason that humans do not yet understand. Its nature is to coagulate—perhaps it is clotting in places to stop from bleeding out on its own. There are such places where a form of oil, asphalt, or tar rises on its own, such as the La Brea Tar Pits in what is now Los Angeles. In the past, Chumash and Tongva people carefully gathered tar from this resource for waterproofing or glue. The tar pits were a place to be watchful, a scab that protects the air, coagulating tar with the blood of animals.
Oil is known as a fossil fuel because it was formed when the remains of animals and plants from millions of years ago were covered by layers of sand. Heat and pressure from these layers, like deep compost, turns the remains into crude oil. It is a dark liquid that is usually found in natural underground reservoirs, like pockets of glue that hold continents together. When crude oil is burned—for combustion, accidentally, or as a spill control measure—it emits chemicals that affect human health. Exposure to burning crude oil may harm the passages of the nose, airways, and lungs. It may cause shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, itching, red or watery eyes, and black mucous. It is well established that chemical interactions from burning crude oil can cause illness, including cancer, yet the world we live in is dependent on doing just that.
There are many forms of liquid fuel, including crude oil, asphalt, liquid natural gas, and others. The burning of these compounds has a harmful effect on the human environment. The oxygen that we breathe, the weather that we experience, the amount of rainfall each year, and the overall temperatures that we see changing are all impacted by combusting oil. The mixture of oil and air is an experiment that is well underway, and Nature is telling us in her language the result. But this guidance from Nature on the importance of clean air is not as easy to hear, or to see, as the impact of mixing oil and water.
There are over 230,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States alone. Only a small fraction of the pipelines are regulated, and there have been over sixteen hundred reported pipeline accidents and leaks since the 1980s. The safety of pipelines is usually analyzed in comparison with trucking or railroad accidents. While those figures are important, more humans are affected by pipeline spills into waterways and the oceans than are killed in cataclysmic accidents. The high environmental cost of oil spills is impossible to calculate because these are events that never occurred in the Earth’s prior history. The effect on plants and animals, in real time and over long periods of time, is beyond measure.
The choice between sudden death by an exploding tanker or slow death from cancer might be easy for some. But this is a false choice. The real choices are whether we should be using fossil fuels at all, and if so, how to prevent additional harm to the environment. The protests against the Keystone XL and especially the Dakota Access Pipeline are examples of Native people bringing this question into the mainstream consciousness. It is not easy to explain the complexity of the Earth, the water cycle, and what cannot be seen in the air and underground. Because we live in a social media–driven society now, it has been boiled down to a very simple idea: water is life.
Water is necessary for all life. When NASA explores other planets in far-away galaxies, they look for evidence of water. Without water, there is no habitat suitable for life as we know it. The Earth, our home, has water. Over time, humans have tried to tame it, to capture it, but what many humans fail to consider is that nothing is static. The Earth has dynamic systems that are always moving. The Earth’s crust slides and lifts deep under our feet, as we sleep. Water flows underneath us in most places, whether in the upper aquifers or deep inside the Earth’s mantle. Nothing stays the same. Subsidence of the valley floor is a force that Barton S. Alexander didn’t consider in 1873. He only saw the Earth’s surface and tried to make a better water delivery system than our Creator had. But the canals are now broken, the concrete is buckled, and the water is leaking. Nature is more powerful than anything humans can design.
The builders of pipelines, like builders of great canals such as Alexander, seem to forget that the Earth is a living system. They discount that there are underground rivers with ecosystems, plants and animals who move around in their lives under the surface. Everything is moving, shifting, and human activity intersects with those movements. Pipelines are inserted into a living system, one that will expel them, as our bodies push out a splinter. The pipe, no matter the material, will break, spilling its contents into soil, into water. Oil and water do not mix, and Nature is telling us what happens when human intervention brings them together.
More people are affected by the lack of clean drinking water today than in past generations. Whether the contamination is from lead, arsenic, mercury, or chemicals released in an oil spill, the effects on human health are a call for action. As humans, we have some ability to shield ourselves from harm, but plants and animals cannot just move or drink bottled water. Human “dominance” over the rest of Nature, however, ends when our air and drinking water is too contaminated for humans to survive. After all, water and air are the two essential elements for human life.
The caretakers of this land, such as those at the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota, are trying to translate a message that many are unable or unwilling to hear. When governments allow the wholesale theft of water and oil for corporate gains, at the expense of our natural environment, and causing the contamination of our air and water, those governments are failing the people they represent. Applying the economic theory of the tragedy of the commons, the #NoDAPL movement is asking us to stop allowing individuals, acting independently and in their own financial self-interest, from behaving contrary to the common good of all users by depleting the resource.
Several decades ago, I was very concerned about development of a ski resort on my tribe’s sacred mountain, Mount Shasta, in northeastern California. I was writing about it in News from Native California and doing a lot of research. One day, I had what some might call a vision; others might say it was a dream. I was walking up a mountain trail and came upon a small cabin in the woods. An old woman with long white hair cascading down to her feet sat on the porch in a rocking chair. She smiled at me and gestured for me to come closer. As she transformed into the mountain, she told me without words not to worry. She showed me a vision of a violent earthquake—perhaps it was an eruption of the mountain’s dormant volcano. She told me not to worry about the ski lifts, saying she would “shake them off, like fleas off a dog.” When I woke, I felt relief. Our mother is the one in charge. The Earth is telling us to be watchful, to take heed. But she will continue without us if we are unable to listen.
Michelle L. LaPena is a member of the Pit River Tribe, mother of three, and Indian law attorney. She has lectured at primary, secondary, and university levels and published a number essays, nonfiction, and law review articles on topics related to California Indians and federal Indian law. She received her B.A. in 1993 and her J.D. in 1998, both from the University of California, Davis. She is currently completing her M.F.A. in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is a recipient of the 2015 Truman Capote Creative Writing Fellowship and the American Indian College Fund’s Full Circle Scholarship.