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In a matter of months, the San Joaquin Valley flip-flopped from severe drought to severe flooding. And now, as the big snowpack in the Sierra Nevada becomes the “Big Melt” in the Valley, who’s underwater, who’s helping clean up, and what does it all mean for our region’s future? This weekly segment featuring interviews with reporters, water authorities, growers and others who live and work in the Valley explores historic flooding and its aftermath.

Water Whiplash: Why some see a 'need to change' after historic water flows from Sierra Nevada

Orchards sit submerged at the edge of Tulare Lake near Corcoran.
Kerry Klein
Orchards sit submerged at the edge of Tulare Lake near Corcoran.

As snowmelt flows out of the Sierra Nevada, where the water settles in the Tulare Lake basin is determined by more than simply the elevation of the land. Levees, berms and other flood control infrastructure all play a role in shaping the current permutation of the lake.

And, according to Trudy Wischemann, that infrastructure is an indication of a greater power imbalance in our region’s water governance.

Wischemann is a long-time rural advocate in Tulare County and a columnist for the Exeter Sun-Gazette and other rural newspapers. Since March, she’s written extensively about Tulare Lake. For this installment of Water Whiplash, we discuss the region’s haves and have-nots.

Listen to the interview in the player on this page, and read the transcript below.

TRUDY WISCHEMANN: I think the lake is showing us something really bigger than just what the impacts of the flooding are. The lake’s flooding is showing us the impacts of large-scale agriculture and their control over the water supply over decades. If we think about “haves” and “have-nots,” I know that we typically think about haves being the people at the top, the 1%, and the have-nots being the masses huddled at the bottom. But in fact that isn't a very useful way of thinking about it because haves and have-nots tend to focus us on the economic impacts, and these impacts of the water control go to every aspect of our lives here. Bearing such a huge impact on the dairy farmers that are on the Tule River that got flooded, the orchardists, their groves are underwater, plus the threats to the small farmworker communities that were real for a while. The fact that one corporation could impose those costs on other people, plus the costs on the taxpayers of reinforcing the levees and berms raising the roads, is one example of the costs they impose upon us year after year in all these other ways.

KERRY KLEIN: This big agribusiness you're referring to, J.G. Boswell Corporation, of course.

WISCHEMANN: J.G. Boswell, but also Vidovich, who is Sandridge Partners, and then the Resnicks are off on the side having a pleasant time being invisible, but they're still involved.

KLEIN: Right, and you and you write that a lot of that power comes from just the sheer amount of land that these that these businesses own. And so one solution you propose is for water districts to undergo a structural change and to no longer allocate the greatest voting rights within their districts to the biggest landowners. In one of your columns you even call water districts undemocratic. So talk about that.

WISCHEMANN: I will. Actually, there are two kinds of water districts. And this is what came out of the research of Merrill Goodall at Claremont, who did research with two other Claremont colleagues, John Sullivan and Timothy De Young. Anyway, Merrill Goodall's research basically brought up the fact that we have these two distinct, different kinds of water districts. And one is called property weighted voting, whereby the number of votes you get is proportional to the amount of land you own. That's called property-weighted voting. In other districts like irrigation districts primarily, the voting is one vote per owner. And so it's a much more democratic form of governance. And I do think that what we need to do is the people of California is to eliminate property-weighted voting in water districts so that they don't have that kind of control that their land gives them.

KLEIN: And so what makes you think that it might be possible to do that?

WISCHEMANN: There's a Supreme Court case, U.S. Supreme Court case, Salyer vs. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, that was decided in ‘73, which declared that property-weighted voting was constitutional according to the U.S. Constitution. But in that decision, Justice William O Douglas wrote a dissenting opinion that said that the majority opinion is all dead wrong, lots of other people other than the major property owners are impacted by the decisions made by this board. And that opinion triggered the research by Merrill Goodall and his Claremont colleagues. Goodall maintained that the California state constitution itself says that property-weighted voting should be illegal.

KLEIN: So you were recently interviewed by high school film students from Los Angeles about Tulare Lake. So I will now ask you the same questions that they used to conclude their film. So as Kings and Tulare Counties continue to endure the fallout from the refilling of Tulare Lake, and as this likely will continue to happen again and again in the coming decades, you know, what do you think will happen to the region and water governance? And what do you think should happen?

WISCHEMANN: My greatest fear about what could happen is that nothing will change. That we will continue to go, “Oh, wow, that was bad,” and then the minute the bad impacts get mitigated or forgotten, we just keep going in the way we've been going for 150 years. My hope, and what could change, is that we could see, through the lens of this refilling lake and the largest snowpack we've had in a very, very long time, that we need to change. We need to see that the power structure controlling our water supply has impacts way beyond who gets flooded and who doesn't. And if the call comes from the people of the region, there's half a hope it will happen.

KLEIN: Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate and a columnist for the Exeter Sun-Gazette and other rural newspapers in the San Joaquin Valley. Trudy, it's been a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you.

WISCHEMANN: Thank you, Kerry. Keep up the good work.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.