The Jaws of Victory

Review of: The River Stops Here: How One Man’s Battle to Save His Valley Changed the Fate of California. Ted Simon, Random House, New York.

By George Monbiot. Published in New Scientist 14th January 1995.

The greatest battle any environmental campaigner faces is the battle with him or herself. At every turn we are taught to fit in, to respect authority, to refrain from rocking the boat. Confronting either the state or its tax base forces one to acknowledge that the maxims with which we were brought up are false: that cheats do prosper, that virtue does not triumph of itself, that the truth will out only with the most arduous winkling. Facing this leads swiftly to the questioning of everything one once believed about oneself.

The struggle could scarcely have been more painful for Richard Wilson, the unlikely hero of The River Stops Here. A wealthy Republican cattle rancher, whose forebears were among the pioneers who broke the seal of the western wilderness, Wilson found himself opposing one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful coalitions of vested interests: the Californian water lobby.

Wilson had moved, with his model American family, into one of the natural wonders of the northern mountains, a bowl of rich grasslands and forest in the midst of arid scrub known as the Round Valley. To him it was both a suitable site for his experiments with cattle raising and, surrounded by the pastures studded with valley oaks and the wild rivers thundering with steelhead and salmon, a refuge from the crude bustle of Los Angeles.

To the engineers of the State Water Project and the Army it represented something quite different. Southern California was built on piped water, imported from the north not only to quench the unnatural thirst of Los Angeles, but also to satisfy the ever more clamorous agro-industrial lobby.

Since the first piped water scheme, in 1910, land speculators had used the future perceived needs of urban areas to urge the state to run gigantic aqueducts southwards. Buying up the desert land the pipes crossed for a song, the speculators would then borrow the surplus water as it travelled southwards, raising the value of their land by hundreds of times. The process was attended by influence peddling, corruption and murder. It generated the devastating growth and scandalous concentration of wealth which became the model for much of America’s resource economy.

The flooding of Round Valley was the State Water Project’s most ambitious plan, taking the waters of the Eel River southwards, and commencing the programme which would divert the remainder of the state’s wild rivers. The north of California, poor in dollars but rich in resources, had as little chance of resisting the south – which was rich in dollars but poor in resources – as a similarly bequeathed Peru had of resisting the hungry rapacity of Spain.

Had Richard Wilson been wholly aware of the odds against him when, in 1968, he first faced up to the water lobby, he may well have been tempted to do as his ancestors did, and flee to the next frontier when the first became too hazardous. But his naivety buoyed him up. To him the project was simply wrong. It was an abomination and therefore had to be opposed.

When Wilson first made his stand, he found himself isolated. To many of the people of the valley the flooding would be a blessing: they could sell their failing farms to the state and buy into lakeside condominiums. To the water engineers and the politicians united behind them, he was just a misguided backwoodsman of the sort they always encountered while promoting the greater good.

Slowly, as the dam boosters cranked up their great PR machine, Wilson started scraping together an extraordinary alliance of ranchers, Indians, lawyers, lobbyists, trades unionists and Republican politicians. As they confronted the duplicity, the dirty tricks, the bogus cost benefit analyses and the sheer steamroller power of the water industry, they unwittingly became the Western world’s first broad-based, well-coordinated environmental lobby.

The reserved upper class rancher from Round Valley got streetwise. The campaigning on both sides became fiercer and dirtier until the issue reached the desk of the most inscrutable of decision makers, Governor Ronald Reagan.

Ted Simon’s account of Richard Wilson’s battle is gentle in its persuasion and modest in its aims. Yet his narrative skills and his insight into human motivation makes The River Stops Here as gripping as any political thriller.

In Simon’s eyes there are no unalloyed heroes, and no uncomplicated villains. The engineers are not devils but driven men, hardened against the ineffable by their own steely logic. The politicians are shown trapped in their ambitious machinations, forced to conspire against eachother to secure their survival. Reading Simon’s account, I felt I understood Ronald Reagan for the first time, and even felt a twinge of sympathy for the old bamboozler.

Books sell not because they are important but because they are entertaining, and their bitter medicine will only reach the unconverted if it is embedded in something rather sweeter. Environmentalists are among the world’s worst writers, and until they learn to tell stories the medium will, rightly, continue to wither away. Ted Simon shows the way that environmental writing must go if it is to have any validity.

Against astonishing odds, Richard Wilson and his friends won the battle for Round Valley. Their victory brought the state’s existing water policy to an end: since 1970 no high dams have been seriously contemplated in northern California. The campaigners’ success helped fashion the world’s budding environmental movement.

But in politics there are no endings, least of all wholly happy ones. Wilson’s victory was a victory less for democracy than for enlightened oligarchy: he could not have achieved his ends without recourse to the means used by his opponents. The administration which saved Round Valley generated one of the most environmentally destructive presidencies America has ever known.

Wilson moved on to become director of the California Department of Forestry, where he found himself beleaguered both by lumbermen and by a new generation of radical environmentalists, for whom his pale and politicised attempts at forest conservation were inadequate. Like every campaigner, Wilson discovered that his victories were bittersweet. When the world changes as a result of your efforts, nothing changes as much as yourself.