Can New California Water Storage Projects Win State Funding?

An initial review by the California Water Commission slashed the ‘public benefits’ claimed by project applicants, prompting outrage in some quarters. Others say the process is working exactly as voters intended.

Bear River CA

The Bear River in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, shown here, is the site for the Centennial Dam project proposed by the Nevada Irrigation District. Image: Wikimedia Commons


Written by Matt Weiser

If California taxpayers are going to spend $2.7 billion on new water storage projects, the projects had better come with many more environmental benefits.

That was the message sent by the California Water Commission, which on February 2 released its first analysis of 11 projects vying for a share of the riches. The money will come from Proposition 1, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2014, which empowered the state to issue nearly $2.7 billion in bonds for water storage, whether new reservoirs, groundwater recharge or some form of hybrid.

But according to Prop. 1, the money can only pay for “public benefits” associated with the projects, not just the cost of storing water. This includes environmental enhancements like improving streamflow for fish, the capacity to capture or convey floodwaters, recreational amenities and emergency response capabilities.

The State Water Commission is charged with vetting the public benefit claims. This is a weighty undertaking, because such a thing has never been done before.

In its initial review of the projects, the commission found that none would deliver all the public benefits claimed in their applications. Some were very far off the mark, the commission found, especially concerning environmental benefits. In a few cases, the commission actually zeroed-out the claimed benefits.

This triggered a swift backlash from the water industry and some conservative politicians in the state, who criticized the commission for setting the bar too high.

A cosponsor of the original Prop. 1 legislation, state senator Scott Wilk, R-Antelope Valley, urged the commission in a letter to revamp its application process, claiming “dereliction of the duties bestowed upon the Water Commission and its staff.”

The Association of California Water Agencies called the low rankings “deeply concerning.” State senator Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, told the Sacramento Bee he felt “visceral anger” at the news and suggested the commission was thwarting the will of the voters.

But others said the commission is doing exactly what the voters wanted: Holding water storage projects to a higher standard, and rigorously vetting the claims they make.

“In quite a number of cases they said, ‘Well, these numbers just look too high.’ I thought it was pretty brave of them,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, and a professor of engineering. “This is public money. It’s going to be coming out of the state budget for decades to come. So I’m glad to see them doing a reasonable job of it.”

The projects that took the biggest hit in the Water Commission evaluations include Pure Water San Diego, which involves recycling and storing wastewater; Centennial Dam, proposed on the Bear River by the Nevada Irrigation District; and the Willow Springs groundwater banking project proposed in the San Joaquin Valley. The water commission found all of these had no public benefits to offer, or that the claimed benefits could not be verified.

Two others were reduced to near zero, including Temperance Flat Reservoir, a new dam proposed on the San Joaquin River, which has been heavily criticized by environmental groups; and a Tulare Lake groundwater storage project in the San Joaquin Valley, which is opposed by some neighboring water users.

The best-performing projects are a proposal by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District to use recycled wastewater for farm irrigation, helping to recharge groundwater; and a proposal by the Inland Empire UCtilities Agency to recycle water for groundwater recharge, easing pressure on Feather River diversions. The commission reduced their public benefits by less than one-third.

Others fall somewhere in between these extremes. One is the Sites Reservoir project in Colusa County, which proposes to divert Sacramento River water into a new 1.8 million acre-foot off-stream reservoir. The commission rated its ecosystem benefits at only 13 percent of what the backers claimed, and its overall public benefit at 40 percent.

The biggest setback for the Sites project involved the claim that its stored water could be used at critical times to improve flows for salmon migration, and that this would ease pressure on other reservoirs to provide fishery flows, thereby stretching regional water supplies. These benefits either didn’t measure up as claimed, or could not be fully verified.

Yet Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Joint Powers Authority, said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the scrutiny.

“We figured that with the size of the project, and some of the bold concepts that we put into our proposal, that we would have to clarify some of them,” Watson said. “We were very disappointed we were not able to be scored on environmental benefits in terms of water for salmon.”

This isn’t the end for these projects. The water commission is urging the applicants to amend their proposals, and it has set up an appeal process, with revised applications due by February 23. After that, it will conduct another review, with preliminary funding decisions expected in July.

“The commission has every confidence the information received in the coming weeks will help us fund eligible projects and the public benefits they provide,” Armando Quintero, the commission’s chair, said in a statement.

In a few cases, the shortcomings found by the commission appear to be more technical than substantive. One example is the proposal to expand the existing Los Vaqueros Reservoir, located south of Antioch and operated by Contra Costa Water District.

The project has become something of a favorite among environmental groups, because some of the additional water it proposes to store would be dedicated to wildlife refuge areas in the San Joaquin Valley. This would help hundreds of migratory bird species, as well as many other kinds of wildlife, that have been shortchanged on water deliveries for decades.

Los Vaqueros had its public benefits slashed by the commission partly because its backers used a modified computer model that was not familiar to the reviewers.

I’m confident it can overcome the analytical problems with its application,” Rachel Zwillinger, a water policy adviser at Defenders of Wildlife, said of the Los Vaqueros project. “It’s heartening to see the commission is taking their review seriously and are trying to make sure we select projects that provide real environmental benefits. I expect to see a lot of new analysis come in as a result of this appeal process.”

Some projects will probably have to make major changes to continue through the application process. This could include revising operations to produce more public benefits, or requesting less money to bring the project into alignment with the benefits it offers.

The Sites Reservoir proposal, for example, already has enough funding commitments from interested water agencies. Yet Watson says he is committed to the process.

“I know the commissioners will make investment decisions in projects,” said Watson. “The fact that our biggest selling point (water for salmon) wasn’t recognized is the part that we’re working on.”

Some proponents may decide to pull their projects from the process and proceed without state funding.

This article originally appeared on Water Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about water issues and the American West, you can sign up to the Water email list.

A Great Blue Heron, Cherry Garcia and the Founding of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance

By Don Pelton and Jane Pelton
Members, Wolf Creek Community Alliance

INSPIRATION

CLICK TO ENLARGEOne day in the fall of 2002, local contractor Jonathan Keehn had an unforgettable experience while walking along a stretch of Wolf Creek in downtown Grass Valley. He described that experience a couple of months later in an influential article: “I was walking along the creek behind the Safeway and came across a great blue heron standing knee-deep facing upstream, obviously fishing. After eyeing me for a few moments, she took off. A few wing flaps brought her over the freeway as she headed down toward French Ravine.”

Reminiscing years later about the founding of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance (WCCA), two of the founding members said that it was Jonathan’s original article that inspired them to join with him to create the environmental non-profit, dedicated to “preserving and protecting Wolf Creek and its watershed for the benefit of present and future generations”.

In the early months of 2003, the founding group met frequently to talk about the alarming threats to water quality in creeks and streams in the Wolf Creek watershed, and about how a small group of local citizens could enlist community support to restore Wolf Creek. One staple of these early meetings was Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. As Jonathan recalled, people would say, “Not another meeting! … Oh wait, there’s gonna be ice cream?” The Wolf Creek Community Alliance wasn’t just another environmental non-profit, it was becoming a community of like-minded souls.

By means of a huge volunteer effort, plus donations from local citizens and occasional grants, the Wolf Creek Community Alliance has grown into a mature and effective watershed organization.

Wolf Creek is a major tributary to the Bear River; it is 20+ miles long, and its watershed encompasses about 78 square miles from the slopes of Banner Mountain to its confluence with the Bear. Within the watershed, population and land uses vary widely so that the interacting streams range from highly degraded and urbanized to relatively wild. Because of the elevation, sun exposure, and variety of soils, the watershed once supported very productive and diverse ecosystems. But today, water and soil contamination persists from past mining and logging. Development has led to increasing deforestation, impermeable surfaces, erosion, and increased water usage. Setbacks and riparian corridors for the Creek have not been consistently maintained. Portions of Wolf Creek have been diverted into culverts and paved-over. Periodic accidents at the City’s waste water treatment plant spill sewage into the Creek. Winter rains wash contaminants into the Creek. The urban and mining-waste effluents that enter Wolf Creek and its tributaries in and around Grass Valley affect downstream farmers who use irrigation water that comes from Wolf Creek. Wolf Creek has been listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act due to bacteria levels.


ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN ITS FIRST 15 YEARS

Water Quality Monitoring: Since 2005, WCCA volunteers have been monitoring water quality at sentinel sites on Wolf Creek and some of its tributaries. The scientific data collected helps to identify and address problems, disturbances, and contamination affecting the health of our watershed and that of all of its human and wild inhabitants.

Education and Outreach: WCCA volunteers work to increase community understanding of water quality problems in the watershed by tabling at local events, and producing brochures, display materials, videos, maps, handouts, and an informative website. WCCA volunteers produced a film about the proposed Wolf Creek Trails plan, “A Creek Runs Through It”. 

Restoration and StewardshipWCCA volunteers lead Stewardship Days to remove non-native invasive vegetation and plant stabilizing native plants along creek banks on public lands, and are available to consult with Creekside property owners who have questions concerning stream stewardship. Volunteers worked with the City of Grass Valley to adopt Grass Valley’s first riparian set-back regulations, and were instrumental in the development of the Wolf Creek Parkway conceptual plan for a connecting system of walk-able and bike-able trails along Wolf Creek through Grass Valley. In partnership with American Rivers and the City of Grass Valley, WCCA is helping to restore a reach of Peabody Creek, a tributary of Wolf Creek that flows through Condon Park.

Creek-Friendly Development: WCCA volunteers attend City and County Planning Commission meetings in order to advocate for creek–friendly practices in construction and landscaping – erosion and sediment control, creek setbacks and easements, riparian buffer zones, wetlands protection, storm water catchment, permeable surfaces, water conservation, wildlife habitat and trails.

Watershed Assessment and Planning: In 2017, in partnership with Sierra Streams Institute and funded by the Bella Vista Foundation, WCCA began work on a 3-phase pre-restoration assessment of conditions throughout the Wolf Creek watershed including land use, land cover, hydrology from historical and current perspectives, abandoned mine sites, and planned future developments.

Collaboration: In addition to project partnerships with American Rivers and Sierra Streams Institute, WCCA volunteers participate with groups working to protect and restore neighboring watersheds: South Yuba River Citizens League during their annual river cleanup, the Fire Safe Council during their annual Scotch Broom Challenge, and The Sierra Fund during their events to bring attention to mining’s toxic legacy.

DO YOU WANT TO HELP?

Volunteer: WCCA welcomes volunteers for water monitoring, restoration and stewardship, wildlife surveys, outreach and education, fundraising and grants, creek advocacy at city and county planning meetings, publicity, and office support. See “Support our Work” on the WCCA website.

ROUND UP when you shop at Briarpatch In the month of February, 2018, WCCA is the Briarpatch “COOP-CAUSE” of the month. You can help when you shop at Briarpatch in February by remembering to tell the cashier at the register to “ROUND UP!” when you pay your bill.

DONATE

Earn rebates for WCCA when you shop at SPD (hand in this form to any SPD market) and Save Mart (use this form).

SAVE THE DATES APRIL 28 – MAY 6, 2018 FOR KNOW YOUR WATERSHED WEEK:

Wolf Creek is spearheading the first annual “Know Your Watershed” event planned for April 28 through May 6 involving over 18 watershed organizations, tribes, land trusts, and other organizations focused on protecting the Bear, Yuba, and American River watersheds. It will be 8 days of learning and fun with hikes, bio-blitzes, school programs, and art programs throughout the watersheds. If you would like to be involved with this event, send an email to  wolf@wolfcreekalliance.org.


CLICK TO ENLARGECLICK TO ENLARGE

Climate Change Denial in the Age of Trump

Our best hope is perhaps that Trump comes to realize that climate change is a threat not just to human civilization but to the one thing he cares about—Trump.

by Michael Mann
Describing our study, one journalist summarized our key finding as "a snowball’s chance in hell that this was natural."(Photo: Oil Change International/Twitter)

Describing our study, one journalist summarized our key finding as “a snowball’s chance in hell that this was natural.”(Photo: Oil Change International/Twitter)

With a climate change denier in the White House, climate denialism has reached a new low point in America. Indeed, my co-author Tom Toles and I have devoted a whole new chapter to the matter (“Return to the Madhouse: Climate Change Denial in the Age of Trump”) in the new paperback edition of our book The Madhouse Effect (now available for pre-order).

But any chapter on the topic will inevitably become out of date quickly. Indeed, we have our latest episode in the saga. In a new interview with Piers Morgan, Donald Trump continues to deny the basic facts about climate change. As is often the case with Trump, the Costanza principle seems to apply: If Trump makes a claim, then the opposite almost certainly.must be true.

Let’s take a closer look at the veracity (or rather, lack thereof) of The Donald’s latest climate change claims:

1. When asked whether he accepts the scientific consensus behind human-caused climate change, Trump replied “There is a cooling, and there’s a heating”, a version of the standard denialist trope that “climate is always changing“. If you look past the year-to-year fluctuations in temperature due to natural phenomena like El Nino and volcanic eruptions (keeping in mind that Trump can’t even appear to see past day-to-day fluctuations in temperature), it is clear that planet is steadily warming and at a rate that is remarkably consistent with the model simulations as seen in this up-to-date comparison of model-simulated and observed warming produced by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) Director Gavin Schmidt:

The last four years were the warmest, globally, on record–and that record warmth cannot be explained in terms of natural climate variability. My co-authors and I published an article last year demonstrating that the consecutive 2014, 2015, and 2016 global temperature records were extremely unlikely to have happened in the absence of long-term human-caused planetary warming. Describing our study, one journalist summarized our key finding as “a snowball’s chance in hell that this was natural”. So much for Trump’s first talking point…

2. Trump was also quoted as saying that “The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records”.

In referring to the “ice caps” Trump fails to distinguish between sea ice (which floats on water and which does not contribute to sea level rise when it melts) and the continental ice sheets i.e. the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets (which store huge amounts of ice and once they begin to melt are difficult to stop). The distinction is important when it comes to larger climate change impacts, but for our purposes it doesn’t matter, because by either definition of “ice cap”, Trump couldn’t be more wrong with regard to the predictions. Ironically though he does get one thing right: The “ice caps” are setting records–records for rate of ice loss.

The long-term trend in Arctic sea ice is strongly downward and the late summer Arctic sea ice minimum is decreasing faster than the models predicted, as my co-authors and I showed in our 2009 Copenhagen Diagnosis report:

Attempting to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was simply regurgitating the favorite climate change denier talking point that
“southern hemisphere sea ice is on the increase”. There is some truth to that–a small increase was seen for a number of years, though in the southern ocean sea ice extent has far more to do with changing circumpolar wind patterns than temperatures. But that increase is very small, and it is overwhelmed by the dramatic loss in Arctic sea ice. Globally, we are in fact seeing record sea ice….lows. We see that the opposite of what Trump said is in fact true.

OK, but what about the ice sheets? Arguably, from the standpoint of climate change impacts, the melting of the ice sheets is far more significant his is ice that is on land, rather than floating on the ocean, it contributes to sea level rise when it melts.

Here too the best evidence is that the ice sheets that are vulnerable to melting–the Greenland and west Antarctic Ice Sheets–are losing ice, and far sooner than the models predicted. Indeed, the latest research, in particular a 2016 study in Nature co-authored by Rob Deconto of the University of Massachusetts and my Penn State colleague David Pollard, identified processes that had not been include in previous climate modeling assessments that favor accelerated collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet. That finding has led scientists to double the projections of global sea level rise by the end of the century from roughly a meter i.e. roughly 3 feet (as indicated in the last IPCC report) to about two meters i.e. roughly 6 feet. Once again, the opposite of what Trump claimed is actually true.

Now, we all know that Donald Trump really only appears to care about himself, so perhaps what Trump really means is that climate change simply isn’t a problem…for Donald Trump. Well, even here, he is sadly misguided.

In an article my co-authors and I published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last year, we showed that the latest projected increases in sea level rise, combine with more intense hurricanes, combine for greatly increased flood risk where things hit home for Trump–New York City. We even produced a map of maximum projected flood extent that Trump might want to check out—Trump Tower itself is eventually within the danger zone.

By now, most of us have also heard about the special approval that Trump got to build a sea wall to defend his golf course in Ireland from the mounting threat posed by global sea level rise (yes hypocrisy thy name is trump). And Trump’s “winter White House” Mar-a-Lago? Yeah, that’s probably toast too, if we don’t act on climate change.

When it comes to climate change policy in the current administration, our best hope is perhaps that Trump comes to realize that climate change is a threat not just to human civilization but to the one thing he cares about—Trump. But don’t count on it.


Michael Mann Michael Mannis Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University. He was recognized with other Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authors for their contribution to the IPCC’s 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Follow him @MichaelEMann

 

The Tax-the-Rich Animation that Riled the 1%’s Most Fervent Cheerleaders

Reprinted under a Creative Commons 3.0 License

By Fred Glass

Five years ago, an eight-minute cartoon delightfully demolished all the conventional rationales for grand concentrations of private wealth.

“Do Kids Die, Mom?”

Facing the Future With Trepidation in the Age of Trump
By Frida Berrigan

As a mother and an activist, here’s what I’ve concluded as 2018 begins: it’s getting harder and harder to think about the future — at least in that soaring Whitney Houston fashion. You know the song: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way…” These days, doesn’t it sound quaint and of another age?

The truth is I get breathless and sweaty thinking about what life will be like for my kids — three-year-old Madeline, five-year-old Seamus, and 11-year-old Rosena.  I can’t stop thinking about it either.  I can’t stop thinking that they won’t be guaranteed clean air or clean water, that they won’t have a real healthcare system to support them in bad times, even if they pay through the nose in super high taxes. They may not have functional infrastructure, even if President Trump succeeds in building a yuge gilded wall on our southern border (and who knows where else). The social safety net — Medicare, Medicaid, and state assistance of various sorts — could be long gone and the sorts of nonprofit groups that try to fill all breaches a thing of the past. If they lose their jobs or get sick or are injured, what in the world will they have to fall back on, or will they even have jobs to begin with?

The country — if it even exists as the United States of America decades from now when they’re adults — will undoubtedly still be waging war across the planet. Our Connecticut town, on a peninsula between Long Island Sound and the Thames River, will be flooding more regularly as sea levels rise. And who knows if civil discourse or affordable colleges will still be part of American life?

What, I wonder all too often, will be left after Donald Trump’s America (and the possible versions of it that might follow him)?  Will there, by then, be an insurgent movement of some sort in this country?  Could Indivisible go rogue (please)?  Maybe they’d have a nonviolent political wing the way the Sandinistas did in Nicaragua in the 1980s?  With the help of volunteers from all over the hemisphere, they eradicated illiteracy, brought in the coffee harvest, and vaccinated against diseases (while their armed wing fought against the U.S.-backed Contras). Maybe in our city, my grown-up kids can harvest potatoes — no coffee grows here, not yet, anyway — teach reading, and write revolutionary propaganda.

And when it comes to dystopian futures, I’ve got plenty more where that came from, all playing in a loop on the big screen in the multiplex of my mind as I try to imagine my kids as adults, parents, grandparents. Please tell me I’m not the only one in America right now plagued in this fashion.  I’m not fixated on passing our modest family house down to my three kids or making sure that our ragtag “heirlooms” survive their childhood.  What preoccupies me is the bleak, violent, unstable future I fear as their only inheritance.

It’s enough to send me fumbling for a parental “take back” button that doesn’t exist. I just don’t know how to protect them from the future I regularly see in my private version of the movies. And honestly, short of becoming one of those paranoid, well-resourced doomsday preppers, I have no idea how to prepare them.

Recently, I had a chance to school them in the harshness of life and death — and I choked. I just couldn’t do it.

Death and Breakfast

“When will I die, mama?” Madeline asked at breakfast one day recently.  She’ll be four next month. Her tone is curious, as if she were asking when it will be Saturday or her birthday.

“Not for a long time, I hope,” I responded, trying to stay calm. “I hope you’ll die old and quiet like dear Uncle Dan.”

“I want to die LOUD, mama!”

I’m not sure what she means, but already I don’t like it.

“I want to die like a rock star!” her brother Seamus interjects. He is in kindergarten and thinks he’s both wise and worldly.

Great, I think, just great. What does that mean? “Yes,” I say, my voice — I hope — neutral, “rock stars do tend to die, buddy.”

“Do kids die, mom?” he asks suddenly.

“Yes,” I reply, “kids die sometimes.”

My head, of course, is suddenly filled with images of dead kids, little Syrian bodies washing up on Turkish beaches, little Afghan bodies blown to bits, little Yemeni bodies brittle with starvation or cholera. There’s no shortage of images of dead children in my head as I talk with a kind of painful calmness to my two small ones on a school-day morning in southeastern Connecticut.

“Do teenagers die?” Seamus asks. They love teenagers.

“Yes,” I say, my voice heavy and sad by now, “teenagers die sometimes, too.” New images swirl through my head of teenagers drunk, in cars, on drugs, in stages of undress, in mental anguish, dying because they don’t believe they can. I keep all of this to myself.

“People die,” I say, trying to regain control of the conversation. “We all die eventually. But you don’t have to worry. You have a lot of people working hard to make sure you have what you need to live long, happy lives.”

Long, Happy Lives and Other Lies

And that was the end of that. Their existential, morbid curiosity satisfied for the moment, they moved on to an argument about the fantasy character on the back of their cereal box.

I, on the other hand, haven’t moved on.  I’m still right there, sitting at that breakfast table discussing life and death — the when, the where, and the grim how of it all — with my three-year-old and five-year-old.  And wondering if I’ve already failed them.

When I was a kid, my own parents, Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, Catholic peace activists who spent long stretches of time in jail as nuclear weapons disarmament activists, never missed a chance like this to knock some hard lessons about the power structure’s monopoly on violence into my head. Innocent queries about life and death were regularly met with long discourses on nuclear weapons and how such Armageddon weaponry threatened to ultimately cheapen all life, including mine and those of my brother and sister.

To this day, I can still replay those homemade history lessons that regularly began with tales of rapacious white colonizers landing on these shores, wiping out Native Americans from sea to shining sea, and launching the succession of seizures, invasions, and wars that built the United States into an imperial power and guaranteed its future global dominance. (At a certain age, we could even follow along in our own copies of A People’s History of the United States by their friend Howard Zinn). Those lessons were an education in violence and its bloody, brutal efficacy, at least in the short term.  They were also an introduction to its fundamental failures, to the way such violence, deeply embedded in a society, requires an accompanying culture of pathological distraction, fearfulness, and deep insecurity.

That was my childhood. Some version of that once-upon-a-time-in-America, no-sleep-for-you nuclear nightmare of a bedtime story was always playing in my house. And thanks to their clear-eyed, full-disclosure approach to parenting, I grew up feeling prepared for a brutal, unequal, unfair world, but in no way protected from it.  At least as I now remember it, I felt exposed, terrified, and heart-broken too much of the time.

If Madeline and Seamus were 10 years older and asking such questions, what would I have told them? If their big sister and my step-daughter Rosena (who lives with us half the time) were there, would I have been less circumspect? Could I have shared my fears of the future and the myriad ways I dread the passing of each year? Like my parents, would I have held forth on the long-term consequences of our settler-colonial origins, the ways the use of force and violence at the highest levels have come to permeate society, corroding every interaction and threatening us all? Could I have lectured them on guns, drugs, and sex — on the cheapening of life in the era of the decline of this country’s global version of a Pax Americana? Would I have pulled back the curtain to show them that everyone is not working hard to make sure that they — or any other kids — have what they need to lead long, happy lives? I don’t think so.

All these years later, I’m not convinced of what such rants — however well reasoned and well footnoted — truly accomplish. I’m not convinced of what such demoralizing verbal versions of a Facebook scroll of bad news and hypocrisy do for any of us, which is, of course, why I’m sparing my kids, but dumping all my fears on you.

A World on Fire and on the Move

As for my kids, I tried my best to keep that breakfast of ours in the upbeat realm of death-is-part-of-life. That’s where I want to live with them. That’s how my father died — as he lived, surrounded by the people who loved him. His two closest brothers died that way, too. When I imagine the deaths of those I love, I hear a last gasp of breath, feel a last grip of fingers, witness a peaceful slumber that doesn’t end.

But the peace that I treasured in my father’s death, the joyful stability I want for my children, these things that I can tell myself are the bedrock of a meaningful life, are already denied to so many people on this planet. In fact, in a world engulfed in flames (both the literal and figurative fires of war), increasing numbers of them are running as fast as they can in hopes of somehow getting away.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, 1.7 million people are reportedly displaced, mostly fleeing from one part of that vast African nation to other regions to escape spreading violence. In total, four million people are displaced within that fractured land alone. Similarly, in Myanmar, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group subjected to terrible violence, have been on the move in staggering numbers. In the wake of a deadly crackdown by that country’s security forces, 647,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh where many are now living in fetid, desperately overcrowdedrefugee camps. And that’s just to mention two countries on an increasingly desperate planet.

Last year, an estimated 65.6 million people were displaced, a record for the post-World War II period, and tens of millions of them crossed a border, becoming refugees as they fled war, poverty, persecution, and the destructionof urban areas (from major cities to small towns). They regularly left their homes with what they could carry, kids on their hips, in search of imagined safety somewhere over the horizon, just as people have done for millennia, but increasingly — with a twenty-first-century twist — consulting Google maps and WhatsApp, while constantly sharing intel on social media.

And scientists are predicting that this world in motion, this world already aflame, is just the prologue. As the effects of global climate change become more pronounced, the number of displaced people will double, then triple, and possibly only continue to grow.

Charles Geisler, an emeritus development sociologist at Cornell University, predicts that two billion people may be displaced by rising sea levels by the turn of the next century. Coastal peoples will press inland, while farmland off the coasts is likely to be increasingly compromised by drought and desertification. He concludes: “Bottom line: Far more people are going to be living on far less land, and land that is not as fertile and habitable and sustainable as the low-elevation coastal zone… And it’s coming at us faster than we thought.”

Madeline and Seamus will be in their eighties (god willing) when Geisler’s predictions come to pass. They can’t, of course, know about any of these possible catastrophes, but I already sense that they’re picking up on something subtly fragile and vulnerable about our relatively settled lives together. How do I respond to them? What do I as a parent do in the face of such a potentially bleak future?  How and when do I break news like that? Am I supposed to help my children cultivate a taste for crickets instead of hamburger or start building a solar powered hydroponic farm in our basement? Worse yet, whatever I could imagine suggesting wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t protect them. It wouldn’t even prepare them for such a future.

I’m No Fireman

In 1968, my uncle, Dan Berrigan, called Vietnam the “land of burning children” in a beautiful polemic he wrote to accompany a protest by a group that came to be known as the Catonsville Nine. He and eight other Catholics — including my father (long before he was a parent) — publicly burned hundreds of draft files at a selective service office in Catonsville, Maryland, a symbolic attempt to obstruct the sending of yet more young men to the killing fields of Vietnam. My father served years in prison due to actions like that one. Throughout my life, my family drew hope from such creative acts of resistance, elaborate and effective performances of street theater that extended right into the courtroom and sometimes the jailhouse. My uncle, a poet and Jesuit priest, turned that Catonsville trial into an award-winning playthat’s still performed.

And yet, despite their sacrifices, almost half a century later, children are still on fire and I’m no fireman. I’m not breaking into whatever the equivalent of draft boards might be in the era of the all-volunteer/all-drone military. I’m not sitting in at my congressman’s office either. I’m nowhere near a “movement heavy” (a Sixties-era term I often heard applied to my dad). I’m just a gardener who tries to be a good neighbor, a mother who tries to look after a whole community of kids. I’m just one more set of hands. And even though these hands of mine are working hard, my efforts feel ever more paltry, inadequate, token.

Still, I’ll get up tomorrow morning and do it again, because if my efforts don’t matter, what does?  I’ll hug my kids tight, answer their endless questions, and try to equip them for a future that scares the hell out of me. Even if I can’t see that future clearly, I do know one thing: it will be desperate for love, humor, some kind of balance, and the constant if distracted probing of inquisitive children.


Frida Berrigan harvests lettuce with her daughter Madeline, 2

Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhoodand lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2018 Frida Berrigan

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