Saving the River

Describe an experience that has affected you personally.

One Sunday morning in March 2008, I dug into the recesses of the Bakersfield Californian to find an opinion article stating the possibility that our river could flow again after two dry years. A full river? My mind drifted back to when I could take my dog to swim there, when the best refuge from the summer was the lazy, muddy water. I learned that because greedy water districts had obtained the rights to my river’s water, the once-flourishing Kern River had dried into the antithesis of the lush San Joaquin Valley. Ironically, when two selfish water districts brought their feud to court, the judge refused to award proprietorship to either party, leaving the disputed water available. The job was cut out for me: give enough popular attention to the State Water Resources Control Board before the vote on ownership, and the water might flow for the people again. Working expediently, I designed a simple postcard and copied my work at Kinko’s. These missives would bombard Sacramento. The next day I proceeded to the park adjacent to the dry riverbed to gather signatures. My cause was met with suspicion, and some passersby ignored me outright. More receptive individuals agreed to sign postcards, and one person even donated two dollars to allay costs. The generally chilly response was disappointing. My first political campaign was underway in fewer than thirty-six hours, and it was a complete wash. I needed a voice louder than my own. Starting at my source of inspiration, I contacted the journalist from the opinion article. Days later, an article about my endeavors appeared and advertised a follow-up signature drive at the park. A friend and I set up our aluminum table, chairs, and CD player. Dozens of readers stopped by the park to sign cards, offer donations, and volunteer help or supplies for the campaign. Over subsequent visits, we raised $530 and signed 300 postcards. Around town, I became known as the “save-the-river guy.” Service clubs at school approached me about the project. Like-minded students wanted to learn about the river. The support of my community washed over me, which I needed to face the landed water elite. The people were my sling, the postcards were my stones.The project made me aware of how unnerving it feels to face an adversary in politics. While farming soaks up some water, agribusiness interests purchase additional water rights to flip to thirsty districts, like Los Angeles County, for profit. When a friend reported that his father’s water pump business had received distressed phone calls from farmers over a rumor to revoke their property, their unease pitched the project to a new level. The Water Resources Board informed me that they had been assailed by letters from the Shafter, Lerdo, and North Bakersfield water districts. Their opposition made me more driven, more focused. I learned that when against a powerful enemy, I gained power to face it. As the date to vote approached in May 2008, the issue was pushed far back on their docket because of scheduling reasons. My popular support was rendered meaningless, so I couldn’t help but feel disenfranchised from the political process. With a postponed decision and the campaign fizzling out, the summer was looking drier than ever. I realized how quickly people could forget a cause. With encouragement from the Kern Audubon Society, I picked myself back up and started in a new direction. The political action group that formed from this project, called Save Our River, teamed up with a downtown art gallery. In January 2009, we will begin a series of events to sell art for donation to the local Kern River Parkway Foundation. Until the vote, and even after, the campaign will continue.Despite setbacks, the emotional attachment the project created kept it going. It was the closeness my friends and I all felt when working on the project, knowing the secret that getting the river back wasn’t just about cooling off, it was about getting back to nature. Untouched, a body of water naturally flows through the lower valley. This river could make life more livable, and it is the communal vein that exists within the concrete jungle. Through the events and realizations I made during this project, I feel more natural in mind. I know my community. I know that if one non-voting high school junior can make a difference, it’s anyone’s game. Politics is not about personal gain; it is about carving a river in the Garden of Eden.

Leave a Comment