Last month there was a new development in an old story that I thought had been dead and, well, buried a long time ago.
Needless to say, the City of Los Angeles generates its fair share of sewage. I don’t think any of us want to imagine just how much that is. The people who least want to imagine it are the folks of Kern County. That’s where, for many years, the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation has shipped treated “biosolids" from its Hyperion Swage Treatment Plant. The department owns a euphemistically named Green Acres Farms, where it puts 450,000 annual tons of waste to use as fertilizer.
In 2006 some of those Kern folks decided that these shipments were both insulting and unhealthy. They launched a countywide voter initiative to ban the shipments. The campaign used slogans such as “Measure E will stop LA from dumping on Kern,” and “We got the bully next door flinging garbage over his fence into our yard.” Sensationalist headlines have read, “L.A. Dumps 500 Tons of Human Excrement on to Kern County Daily" -- as if every day a monsoon of sewage rains down on the entire county.
The ban passed.
Meanwhile, L.A. kept on flushing and kept on trucking. The city filed lawsuits to oppose the ban and was allowed to maintain its practice. Last month, a Superior Court judge struck down the ban, possibly for good. We’ll see whether the anti-sludge forces turn up their noses yet again or whether they learn to live with indignity.
(Meanwhile, a similar protest has arisen over the arrival of high speed rail. Whereas Fresno has largely embraced the train, Bakersfield is ground zero for protests over eminent domain takings. Some aren’t even sure that they want a station.)
This spat has long fascinated me. It is possible the most petty example of intra-state rivalry in California, and certainly the most pungent. It’s a rivalry that’s become even more poignant in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, which put the nationwide divide between urban and rural areas on full display.
As the Trump vote suggests, rural areas often revile urban areas just as much as urban areas ignore rural areas. The implication is that cities somehow exploit rural areas and that rural areas are irrelevant to cities. Of course, neither case is true — but rivalries are not always rational. Kern County voters took personal offense. Los Angeles became a menacing invader that literally craps on rural folk. Unfortunately, these stereotypes belie the benefits that both places derive from each other.
Whereas the anti-sludge campaign implied that every Kern resident lives within a whiff of L.A.’s shipments, that’s not exactly the case. Kern County is 8,100 square miles. It's one of the biggest counties in the country. Green Acres Farm is 4,600 acres, in a nondescript quadrant between Taft, Buttonwillow, Mettler, and Bakersfield.
It’s the sanitation equivalent of the Princess and the Pea.
In reality, there’s no reason to think that Los Angeles’s trash isn’t Kern County’s treasure. All that manure isn’t going to tend to itself.
In fact, nasty as it sounds, Green Acres is an apt symbol of the symbiosis between rural and urban areas. For every bale of cotton, head of lettuce, and handful of almonds that comes out of the Kern soil, there’s someone in Los Angeles ready to buy it at Whole Foods. Solid waste is part of the cycle of life. Farming itself is hardly a pristine industry.
And, indeed, the relationship between the counties is much more complex than trees and turds. Los Angeles has, by some measure, sending entire people to Kern County for decades. Places like Bakersfield, which have always been skeptical of dense urbanism (and, incidentally, supportive of property rights), have become bedroom communities for places like Los Angeles, thanks in part to planning regulations that push development out further and further from center cities (that trend is even more acute in communities like Tracy, farther up the Central Valley). Kern farmers probably don’t like competition for their land, but surely everyone else — from the shopkeepers to county supervisors — is glad to have more residents. In other words, the age-old exchange of material goods for cold, hard cash persists. The odd reversal of Green Acres Farm is but an anomaly in an otherwise healthy, vigorous economy. The lawsuit suggests that the only thing unhealthy is the relationship between places and the images that we have of each other.
And, in case sewage sludge still makes you cringe, don’t forget that Kern County exports something far more disgusting than human waste: oil.