All posts by richardrandallpwr

Central Valley Thesis & Roadmap

My research question asked what water rights activism takes place California’s Central Valley, what that activism’s goals are, and if or how that activism unites or fractures along socioeconomic, ethnic, or other lines.

Thesis Moment (transcribed from paper draft): “…more recently, activism in the region has focused on the very water that makes life there possible. While farmers and their supporters battle dwindling water allocations and increased reguloations, other organization attempt to combat contamination in small public water supplies, each driving towards greater stability and equity in the Valley’s water systems. Although some rifts exist between corporations and families, growers and laborers, to a great extent activism in the San Joaquin Valley presents a unified front: defending proud farming communities against the human and natural forces that currently threaten them.

To make this argument, I need to provide a historical background of California and the Valley’s water systems. This will segue into a summary of the Valley as it currently is, socially and economically. A key component here is to resist the ‘caricature’ of the region availale in many sources: huge corporate farms, obsessed with profits, willing to exploit the environment and workers. I will highlight sources supporting the greater opportunities available to farm workers, the continued presence of family farms, and the fact that what large corporate farms do exist are isolated or in certai smaller pockets.

With this established, I’ll introduce what activist movements do exist, emphasizing their connection to this large base of concerned family farms (and so backing up their legitimacy). Families Protecting the Valley will be a main example, but there are various other organizations with similar goals. I’ll essentially make the pitch for their cause as well, and discuss how it’s a relatively unknown issue in urban California. I will also mention the distinct water quality activism which also takes place, which isn’t for or against the farming cause, but is a distinct type of water activism worth noting. I will conclude with a paragraph on what concerned city folks can do, and with larger lessons to draw from this and similar historical situations.

Water Activism – Research Update

Link: Central Valley Water Infographic

     My research proposal and infographic had pretty different arguments and styles, so the feedback for each was different. The draft of my research proposal, I was told, gave a good historical narrative of water policy in California, and mentioned many potential areas of research. However, it was unclear how these all might fit together, and whether it was possible to fit all of the directions mentioned into a single paper. The overall structure was also somewhat disjointed and nonlinear and turned out to be very difficult to edit, which I’ll bear in mind going forward.

      From presenting my infographic, I learned that the narrative of “cheated farmers in the Valley” is powerful and worth pursuing further. I confirmed my suspicion that we coastal types hear very little about what goes on in the Central Valley, but many of us are interested in learning, reinforcing the importance of some narrative component of my paper. I learned that highlighting broken promises on the government’s part is a good attention-grabbing tactic.

      Although the pieces were there in my proposal, I’ve definitively focused my research on the question of how water activism in the Central Valley is split or united along ethic, occupational, or socioeconomic lines. For instance, the water-policy-focused billboards on the highway claim to speak for all the residents of the Central Valley. But are they really only speaking for wealthy farm owners? Only for medium-sized farm owners? Only for white people? I don’t know enough to construct a thesis yet, but my suspicion is that much of the Valley stands behind the fight for more canal water allocations, even as residents are divided on groundwater use and social issues

Questions worth looking at?

Five of my ideas for our research projects are as follows:

1. Current-day water rights activism in California’s Central Valley – I’m curious about the people and movements behind all of the protesting signs I see driving along the I-5 corridor in the south San Jaoquin Valley. I’m interested to compare with California’s past Owens Valley conflicts.

2.  Non-oppressed speakers within self-directed social movements – a recent reading referenced a scholarly opening for work on the members of an activist group largely comprised of an oppressed group who are not part of said group themselves. Specifically, it calls for an analysis of such persons’ rhetoric (see the Charles Steward reading, last page)

3. Dakota Access Pipeline – I wonder why, of the many tramplings-on of indigenous rights in America, why was this the one which drew protesters from thousands of miles away across America? Was there a more pressing need there than elsewhere, or was there some ‘ego-function’, aesthetic factor, or other confounding cause that singled out this event as the one to join?

4. Tim Jordan spinoff – in his book Activism!, Tim Jordan argues that roughly between World War 1 and the 1960’s, all issues of activism had to relate themselves to class struggles somehow. Is there an analogous struggle today? Is income inequality, within and between countries, today’s issue? Is it environmentalism? Identity politics? The paper would be less a survey of different candidates than an argument for whichever one is found in research to be most compelling.

5. 2016 Election – I suspect that in many cases, voting for Trump this past November could be fit into the mold of a form of radical activism for people who felt that all ‘conventional’ options have failed. Perhaps it’s a stronger form of Brexit as a “protest vote”. This would maybe be more trodden ground and more concerned with satisfying existing scholarly criteria for activism, and so a less exciting paper to write.


Of these, I’ve done some preliminary reading on the first topic. The story of the Owens Valley in far eastern California is well-known in environmental circles, mostly as a tragic loss of small farming interests to Los Angeles’ power and money. In the 1920’s, LA crushed one of the California’s most prosperous farming regions into oblivion just to secure the land’s water rights. We see similar patterns today, in rhetoric castigating California’s farmers in the central valley for using 80% or more of the state’s water. The implication is that to better serve the greater number of people, the farmers must lose out, which was exactly the argument deployed a century before. Environmentally-driven laws on water conservation are pushing in the direction of this rhetoric.

In the earlier conflict, there were demonstrations, lawsuits, and ultimately the dynamiting of several aqueduct sections. Research would tell what parallels do or do not exist in today’s Central Valley- the situation is similar, but the demographics and economics are different. Ultimately, the question to answer is whether we’re heading towards another episode of ‘urban imperialism’, and whether those such as us in the Bay Area bubble are hearing what activist voices there are.

Tim Jordan on the purpose of Activism

     Tim Jordan’s writing in Activism! engages with the question of what the purpose of radical activism is, given that its goals are frequently unreasonable in practice. He references the examples of feminist movements demanding separated male and female communities, or environmental movements demanding automobile-free futures. I think this is a critical issue in activism, and one which any argument attempting to treat it must address. One of the greatest reasons why people aren’t activists is that they feel the goals are impossible – Stanford will never divest from fossil fuels, say – and so it’s a waste of time.

     The key concept in Jordan’s argument is that the highest purpose of activism is to construct new morals – that rather than “defining our future society,” they are “part of the creation of values by which we may judge our future society” (Jordan 23). Moreover, he says that unreasonable goals are a necessary condition to achieve such change. The rationale for this somewhat out-there claim is that if a goal is achievable within a currently existing system, it represents latent but widespread sentiment, and not truly new morals.

     As someone who has inhabited the camp of questioning the practicality of activism, I find Jordan’s thesis satisfying. However, I’ve got to say that out readings don’t seem entirely sufficient to support the claim. The excerpts we read were excellent in categorizing and describing different sectors of activism along with their associated ethics. However, I never found a good demonstration that a radical activist group (conforming to the criteria Jordan lays out) brought about, say, the many varieties of grocery store eggs Jordan mentions in the first chapter. I found this somewhat unsatisfying.