Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Trust Funders Meddling

My trip to Northern CA was a quick one but thanks to a dedicated group of passionate locals who picked me up at 6:30 in the morning to tour both Mt. Shasta (population 3,621) and Weed (population 2,978), neighboring towns within view of the gorgeous 14,162 ft. Mt. Shasta.

Both were lumber milling towns but most of the mills have closed due to environmental and economic reasons. The towns are trying to reinvent themselves with a mix of economic development and tourism and have had some success in turning things around.

One of the challenges for both towns is the rapid increase in housing costs due to the influx of new residents from the San Francisco Bay Area, rapidly making most housing unaffordable for many workers. As an example, we went by an older 3 bedroom/2 bath house that sold for $150,000 seven years ago but surged to almost $500,000 two years ago and is today still over $400,000, even with the sub-prime meltdown.

“Trust-funders” was a new term that I’d not heard before in small towns. These are mostly young and middle aged people who have a trust fund that provides them with enough of a monthly check that they don’t have to ever work again. While it sounds like a neat idea if you are on the receiving end of these checks, it also has its downside as was explained to me by one of my tour guides, “They make up 10 to 15% of the population in Mt. Shasta but they don’t have to work and seem to want to erect barriers to keep anyone else out of the town. They also don’t seem to care what happens to our young people.”

Both Mt. Shasta and Weed each have water bottling plants in their towns, each employing several hundred people. Both Dannon and Coke Cola have been there for a number of years, providing some of the best paying jobs in the communities.

Nearby McCloud (population 1,343) located 12 miles outside of Mt. Shasta had reached an agreement to build a similar plant with Nestle. The plant would have been located on a 250 acre former lumber mill plant that was the major employer until it closed in 2003. The demographics on the town aren’t very good with an average age of 44.2 compared to a national average of 35.3; per capita income 30% below the national average and only 4 students in their local high school. The deal would have taken 1,600 acre-feet of spring water per year and bottled it, which is the equivalent to what 3,000 families consume on an annual basis.

To someone without any agricultural background, 1,600 acre-feet of spring water might seem like an awful lot, especially when you convert into gallons: 1,600 acre-feet is 520 million gallons. According to a good friend of mine who also farms in the Sacramento Valley, it takes about 6.5 acre-feet of water for cotton and 4 to 5 acre-feet for row crops. If you use an average of 5 acre-feet, this plant would use the equivalent of about 300 acres of cropland, not very significant when compared to the 28,000,000 acres of farmland in the state. That same 300 acres of farmland might employ one or two people, especially if raising cotton. Compare that to the 240 jobs projected to be created by the bottling plant. Or, that the old saw mill used as much water prior to being closed as the new bottling plant will ever use.

It is not a huge amount of water when compared to the population and water needs of CA, but it has outraged the trust-funders. They have marshaled the forces of other outside groups and McCloud’s water plant is now in doubt. Why can’t they let the locals make their own decisions? Do you think that if they had to work for a living, they might have a different perspective?

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