Lloyd Carter is our “water guy,” our resident expert on the crazy world of Valley (and state) water politics. To spend an hour with Lloyd, as I just did, is to participate in an impassioned dialogue on nature, human folly, abuse of power and Doomsday scenarios—with brief portraits of inspiration, courage and fortitude thrown in for spice.
It is easy to get caught up in the torrent of Lloyd’s knowledge and outrage. But my primary interest was the question of how he got involved in these issues and how his involvement has changed him. For this story, we had to go back to that “golden age of ignorance”—the 1950s. As Lloyd depicts it, he grew up in a stable, nurturing household, with caring intelligent parents. Both mother and father had daringly escaped from their rural roots (one from Georgia, the other from the Midwest), virtual immigrants seeking to create their own “brave new world” in California. Lloyd is especially in awe of his father’s ascent, with only an eighth-grade education, to becoming a top executive in a large corporation.
His parents raised their children to be readers and questioners. “I was always intrigued by the Big Questions—who is God? why are we here?—and I absorbed from my home environment life lessons like ‘You’re never happy unless you’re helping others’ and ‘Hard work makes life easy’ and ‘One person with courage makes a majority.’” He also recalls the influence of the neighborhood library, where his reading got a jump-start when he got hooked on a series of books on Great American Heroes (“though later I found that many of them had clay feet”).
Lloyd and I shared this moment in time when it felt great to be an American, when children could believe in the nation’s benevolence and trust our leaders and media figures. (Some, like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, even deserved it.) Wearing those rose-colored glasses, Lloyd got a degree from Fresno State in journalism and began his career as a reporter for United Press International (UPI) and the Fresno Bee.
This interlude lasted about 10 years until a life-altering event occurred. Not an illness or an assassination, it was a seemingly innocuous story he began to work on: why the tomatoes and fruit he bought at the store had so little taste. Until that time, as he says, “I was hypnotized by the glories of Valley agriculture—the desert transformed into food provider for the world! But as my research progressed, that whole story fell to pieces, and I lost my innocence.”
It began with the realization that the driving force of agribusiness had nothing to with nutrition and feeding people; it was all about maximizing profit. Even the research being done at the university, supported by ag business interests, was concerned with shelf life and appearance only, not with food value and sustaining the land. And then came the game-changer. Through contact with Frank (Wat) McGoogan and Jim Klaus, Lloyd became aware early on of the disaster now known as Kesterson. The land/water use practices of the Westland Water District and the big ag interests there had poisoned the area, killing and deforming wildlife and leaching toxins into the groundwater and the food chain.
Equally dismaying, even when this situation was proven beyond doubt, the moneyed and political interests fought to cover up disclosure and prevent change. “The scales came off my eyes about Valley agriculture. It had nothing to do with providing food, it was a mining operation stripping the resources and leaving a poisoned environment behind. Since then, I have been obsessed with getting this story out, and trying to preserve a world of nature and good-hearted people I love.”
Lloyd’s Big Picture now is that the Valley’s true nature was an amazingly abundant wild habitat, with flowing rivers and deep forestation, home to millions of birds, fish and game. “Children growing up today have no knowledge of this history. They know only the concrete-encased artificial environment that’s been created. They accept the comfort and entertainment that’s been created for them, but only now is the true cost starting to be realized. I call this the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the land, air and water have been desecrated.” In this picture, we are like Esau in the Bible, having traded our birthright for a mess of pottage—a bit of temporary enjoyment for us masses, but the lasting enrichment and empowerment at our expense of a few thousand agribusiness tycoons.
Lloyd continues: “The history of the European presence in California—all the way back to the missions and rancheros, through the gold rush and on, has been dominated by the traits of greed and exploitation. The myth that our Valley feeds the world is all wrong. Our agribusiness does not feed the hungry; it provides mostly luxury items to a global middle class. It hasn’t transformed a desert; it has stolen the water and created desert and pollution. It doesn’t provide a livelihood to a grateful workforce; it has created a nearly enslaved subclass of laborers and the greatest enclave of poverty in the country. And beyond that, by manipulating the political system, it funnels huge tax subsidies to billionaires—the hypocrisy of those plutocrats decrying welfare for our most at-risk population is monumental.”
Lloyd is a font of information and outrage about the lies, disinformation, inhumanity and sheer destructiveness that go into local water politics. “There is a war going on, and the health of the Valley and its inhabitants is at stake. I know I’ve become obsessed, but till my last breath I will proclaim, ‘If you’re going to farm, you can’t degrade the environment, and if you think humans know how to manage a river, you’re an arrogant fool.’”
Lloyd wants to be clear that there are many farmers he respects and supports, those who understand the need for moderation and stewardship. And he has heroes, like Walt Shubin, who is fighting to restore the San Joaquin Rive; Felix Smith, the whistleblower at Kesterson (whose career was destroyed); and Byron Leydecker, a Marin banker and sport fisher who has struggled to restore the Trinity River from water theft by the Westland growers.
“I see a lot of people fighting the good fight. But I can’t say I’m optimistic,” he concludes. “The failure of Kesterson is its main visible effects were on birds. The drainage problem has never been fixed, the farming technology remains inevitably destructive. It seems only a human catastrophe can motivate change.”
If you seek motivation to get informed and active on water and related issues—before the next catastrophe—look for Lloyd’s articles in these pages in the coming months. You can bet they won’t be in the Bee.
(Author’s note: For our readers, Lloyd recommends two books, River of Empire by Donald Worster and Cadillac Desert by Mark Reisner. For his own fuller analysis, he refers us to his Web site (“you can google lloydcarter.com”) and the link there to his lengthy Law Review article.)