“Say infrastructure and you’re saying that life has been detached from its conditions. That conditions have been placed on life. That life now depends on factors out of its control, that it has lost its footing. Infrastructures organize a life without a world, suspended, expendable, at the mercy of whoever is managing them.” -The Invisible Committee, 2014
Black Spring, Dirty Water
Without assuming too much, it is fair to say that you are currently at the mercy of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). If you refuse to pay them for water, they will eventually put a lock on your water meter. If you clip the lock and turn the water back on, they will remove the meter and disconnect your house from the pipe network. The money you must pay to EBMUD is supposedly meant to maintain the infrastructure and pay the workers, although it is hardly that simple.
The biggest customer in the East Bay is the Chevron refinery in Richmond. Every day, the refinery uses up roughly 10 million gallons of water. In a single week, it consumes enough water to supply 500 houses for a year. Throughout the year, the refinery uses over 3 billion gallons of water. Up until 2010, the refinery drew from the same water supply as every other EBMUD customer. But since 2010, around 7.5 million gallons of waste water are being recycled from the municipal network. Today, the refinery only uses around 2.5 million gallons of fresh water a day, or 15 million gallons a week.
According to the UN, humans need just over two gallons of water a day to survive. As it stands, every day that the Richmond Chevron refinery is operational, it consumes enough fresh water to satisfy the needs of 4,500people for an entire year. The annual water use of the refinery is equivalent to the amount needed to supply the combined populations of San Jose and Oakland for an entire year. EBMUD services 1.3 million people, yet its biggest customer consumes more in a year than the entire population of the East Bay. Even with its recycled water, the refinery is a glaring example of the fundamental contra diction of capitalism.
10 million gallon of water goes into the refinery each day and out comes 250,000 barrels of refined petroleum, or 4,750,000 gallons of gasoline. In other words, for every two gallons of water put into the refinery, less than one gallon of gasoline comes out. This gasoline isthen burned up by millions of vehicles at varying rates. A hybrid Prius can travel 50 miles on each gallon, whereas a Suburban SUV can travel only 20. Either way, both vehicles release climate changing carbon molecules into the atmosphere at consistent rates, thus contributing to the long drought in California. But despite all of the available data, the Chevron refinery is still using up 2.5 million gallons of drinking water per day, all so that millions of other people can poison the atmosphere and warm the planet.
Something is clearly wrong with this situation and it is no exaggeration to say that it needed to be stopped years ago. With a bleak future ahead of us, it is important to begin formulating an exit strategy. Making matters worse locally, EBMUD announced that is will be raising a surcharge to water rates by 24% on all customers. The reason for the raise: people are using less water. Because people are cutting back their use, EBMUD is getting less revenue coming in. But raising the cost under the guise of “drought conditions,” the agency can bring in more cash. The ‘drought surcharge’ is coupled with a permanent hike of 8%, which was supposedly implemented to replace crumbling infrastructure and pay off debts for construction projects. The current raises by EBMUD is a classic austerity move, pushed through the auspices of water conservation and raging drought.
Furthermore, while poor and working-class people are cutting back on water use, many wealthy Californians baulk at the idea of cut ting water consumption. As one upper-crust put it in the SF Gate, “People should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful. We pay significant property taxes based on where we live, [and], no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.” Like everything else, to the rich and corporations go the spoils and water. For everyone else, we pay out the nose.
Creeks, Redwoods, Trout, and Fog
Meanwhile, in the foothills of Oakland, a simple process occurs every summer morning. Fog rolls into the bay from ocean, bringing with it moisture. At the tops of the redwood hills, this moisture is captured in boughs and branches. It drips down to the floor of the forest and seeps into the ground. There are days when the fog does not leave the hills, and while the redwood and cypress are shrouded in the clouds, the forest is gathering water for itself. What excess remains eventually emerges out of various springs that lead to the tributaries of Sausal Creek. These tributaries snake through the redwood forest before reaching their confluence. As with most colonial projects, unnatural impediments are placed at the most important sites of indigenous life. In the case of the Sausal Creek watershed, there is the 580 freeway and a driving range interrupting the natural meeting point of several tributaries. After these waters all collide, they are channeled underground until they are past the driving range. They reemerge in Dimond Canyon and travel through a lush canyon of oak, cypress, redwood, and an unfortunate amount of ivy. They are then diverted back underground and channeled into open air canals that parallel Fruitvale Avenue. Ultimately, these waters merge into the bay through a concrete pool at the end of a long pipe. The pool overflows only during strong storms, and normally it serves as a fresh water source for a wide variety of animals.
Thanks to the redwood forest above, Sausal Creek runs all year round, delivering fresh water to the bay. It is now relatively unsafe to drink from any spot below the freeways, but the water from the springs is safe and clear. This same water source is what enabled the small towns of Fruit Vale and the Diamond to come into being. In 1849, the first major wave of Anglo-Saxon colonizers arrived along Sausal Creek and in 1850 the first saw mill was built in the redwoods along the stream. The fresh water was diverted into boilers and used to power the saws that devastated the old growth forest that had stood over Oakland since the beginning of time. Several more mills sprung up in the years that followed, employing nearly 400 men. Within a decade, the redwoods that extended from Montclair to the Diamond were chopped down and rendered into lumber for new houses in Oakland and San Francisco.
In 1853, a man named Henderson Luelling started a farm and plant nursery along the creek. He channeled water towards his fruit orchards and began to grow bing cherries and other crops. Fruite Vale was the name he gave to the region, and for the next twenty years the land along the creek filled with farms and orchards. Hops, oranges, grains, and apricots are just some of the foods that were grown in this small bread basket. The Dimond became famous for its beer gardens that served local brews sourced from local fields, while the Fruite Vale became well known for its sprawling fields of oranges, peaches, and apricots.
With this dam, Hopkins created the Sausal Water Company and piped water directly into private homes and farms. Now there was no longer a need for the small farmer to take water from Sausal Creek with their own hands. Now they could purchase it from Caspar Hopkins and the pipes he laid. The dam was located 325 feet above sea level and could hold a million gallons of water at a time. This million gallons was more than enough keep the orchards and fields irrigated and overflowing with food. But in 1872 the company collapsed after a brief drought and was purchased by a man named Anthony Chabot.
The Sausal Creek dam was folded into the existing company holdings which included the Temescal Creek dam and various artisan wells throughout the area. By 1873, it was clear that these three main water sources were insufficient for the growing population of the East Bay. Chabot built another dam high in the hills along San Leandro Creek and with this his company was able to meet the increasing demand of the city below. With three dams holding millions of gallons of water combined, the stage had been set for the Oakland we know today. With a total monopoly on East Bay waters, Anthony Chabot made a fortune. But more importantly, he separated people from their natural water source and made them dependent on his company, not the creek itself.
The famous orchards of Dimond and Fruite Vale remained until the early 1900’s, but when new electric streetcars were installed the population began to spike. One by one, the small farmers sold their lots to developers and more houses rose into the air. Every passing year marked the return of a smaller number of trout and salmon than the year before. As the orchards and farms vanished, new industrial factories were built that used Sausal Creek to fill their boilers. The children who grew up in the area no longer found any fish in the upper parts of the creek. In 1923, the East Bay Municipal Utility District was formed, consolidating all of the existing dams into one system. With the advent of this new supplier, residents of the Dimond and Fruit Vale now drank water that came from miles away.
The fresh water creek that flowed year round was no longer important to the population. With its waters ravaged by silt and mud, Sausal Creek was channeled, straightened, and mostly buried under ground. The force that gave the first colonizers water and food was now forgotten. By the 1940’s, the creek was nothing more than scenery to increase real estate prices. Today the creek water runs clear once again, although its lower reaches are tainted with oil and other toxic substances. Despite all the forces against them, the rainbow trout have returned to the upper reaches of the watershed.
Children play in shady pools on summer days, and some Oakland children are lucky enough to have seen the fish. Neighbors harvest cherries and plums from trees planted over a century ago. Springs of fresh water still exist in the redwoods. But there are very few people today who can conceptualize living off the creek and the water it provides. Every morning the fog rolls in and fills the creek with more water. This fog recharges the springs and moistens the air. If there is enough water during the summers, the trout can return to the upper parts of the watershed. If there are pools deep enough and warm enough, the trout can spawn in larger numbers. The more trout that are born in Sausal Creek, the more they will return in the future. And if the trout ever return in large numbers, that will mean Sausal Creek has been healed. If the creek is ever healed, we will be able to live off it once more. At their height of sustainability, the rural towns of Fruit Vale and Dimond grew enough food to not only support themselves but to ship large quantities of produce to the other side of the country. They did all of this with free water that started as fog. It flowed all year round. It asked only to be respected, unspoiled, and left to meander where it wished. This was too much to ask for the first colonizer. But it is not too much for us.
Initiating a Decolonization Campaign
As you can see, the early colonizers of the East Bay were too greedy to live in balance with their surroundings. These people simply took the land, resources, and humans they found desirable. The laws, codes, and regulations came later, largely as a rationalization for their past conquest and plundering. The colonial power in the East Bay has no legitimacy, nor has it ever. This includes every City Council, every County Council, every State Senate, and every Federal Court. The mayors, governors, council members, and politicians hold positions of authority based on lies, theft, and deviousness. They deserve no recognition, nor will they receive any in the future.
For example, the Chevron refinery was originally built in 1901 by John D. Rockefeller on a piece of land that was not his to buy. Nevertheless, he paid money to a legal owner and acquired a pristine stretch of marshland that surrounded tall tree-covered hills. In this place of beauty he built a giant factory that would produce environmentally destructive petroleum to be burnt in cars and released into the air. A city quickly emerged around the factory and was eventually incorporated as Richmond. From its inception, the residents of this city have been subjected to the various poisons that hover around the refinery. Cancers, leukemia, asthma, and other serious ailments can be found at higher levels in those who live around the refinery. An explosion at the refinery in 2012 sent 15,000 people the hospital and released and toxic black cloud into the air. Further fires have only reminded us of its potential danger. As was mentioned earlier, the refinery uses more water per year than the 1.3 million people served by EBMUD. It should be obvious that the refinery needs to decommissioned as quickly as possible.
In 2016, there will be two open seats for the EBMUD Board of Directors. Regardless of who wins these seats, the board won’t have the power to shut off water to the refinery. A mass movement is needed to constantly apply pressure and make the situation fluid. This mass movement must also stay true to the vision of a human community living in harmony with the land. If rank-and-file EBMUD workers side with the people and not Chevron, it will be all the simpler to turn off the water to not only Chevron, but every environmentally destructive project. Such a scenario is not out of the question and victory is more than achievable. But it is safe to assume that the momentum for this effort will not come from the stale dinosaurs on the Left: the politicians, the union bureaucrats, and non-profits. It will come from people much bolder; people capable of thinking in a manner that is not yet fully colonized. It will come from the people that are running out of water and money and who see the rich and the corporations gobble up what is left of the earth.
The actions and methods that will be used in the future will certainly be unpredictable. When confronted with the horrifying and undeniable facts of industrial capitalism, one can either live in constant existential defeat or actively organize a campaign of decolonization. Such a campaign is necessary, as is the organization capable of carrying it out. But more than an active campaign against Chevron and other earth destroying industries, we need to begin decolonizing the land that we live on.
With the water we still have access to from EBMUD infrastructure, we can cultivate every vacant piece of land and provide food four ourselves. It will be free and grown with our own hands. But cultivating all of the concrete lots and regenerating toxic urban soil would require the abandonment of current laws and conceptions of property. The healing of the earth goes hand in hand with illegality. We cannot do what needs to be done through a legal framework. We must specifically destroy the legal framework we live under in order to free the land and thus heal it. And in the process, we will destroy capitalism. One goes with the other. Any other conception of this struggle will fail before it begins. Nothing legal has worked thus far, and illegal action is necessary to end the obvious horrors of capitalism. Many of us and many of you are already working on projects that aspire for an earth free from the chains of industry, property, and money. It will require all of us to bring our desires to reality. A small group of people can be highly effective, as we have all noticed in our work. The task now is to combine our efforts into the clearly defined goal of ending the tyranny of capitalism and restoring the land to health. Environmental groups, indigenous groups, and water rights groups need to advocate their fiercest and most effective methods pos sible in order to win, and they have to do it together. Given that those most connected to capitalism and western civilization are the least qualified to heal the earth, any such movement will be led by the indigenous. Only they have kept alive the original ways of living with this land, here, beneath our feet. We can only hope they will teach us.