In 2011, I wrote the report, Mendota: Evidence that soil and groundwater salinization is the predominant cause of land fallowing. Eventually Westlands Water District officials admitted that there was over 100,000 acres of land in the District that had been retired from irrigated production. (Westlands’ 2017 Water Management Plan shows that 176,000 acres had been retired from irrigated production.)
In 2014, there were over 200,000 acres of land fallowed in Westlands, due to the drought. I was driving back from a visit to San Diego in my black Ford Ranger pickup. I stopped and spent the night in Kettleman City and then drove up Highway 33 to Mendota, taking pictures of the vast expanses of fallowed land. I got lunch, and then drove from Mendota towards I-5 in the afternoon. Several huge crop hauling semis rumbled by. I felt somewhat conspicuous taking photos, but kept doing so.
After another hour, my subconscious whispered the word “Silkwood” to me as yet another truck rumbled by. I’d been visiting Westlands and taking pictures for years with no problem, so I just shook my head and kept taking pictures. Then 20 minutes later another truck rumbled by and my subconscious again whispered the word “Silkwood” to me. I was wearing a bright pink polo shirt, so I rummaged in my suitcase and see if there was a less colorful shirt I could put on. But there wasn’t anything that was even remotely clean. So I got in my truck and drove a bit more towards the freeway, then stopped and took more pictures.
By late afternoon I was almost to I-5. I stopped at a stop sign. The sun was low above the Coast range. As I pulled out, a huge crop hauling semi came out of nowhere and hit my Ford Ranger. I woke up lying face up on the pavement. A man was standing near me, and told me he I had been in an accident. I asked how I got out of the truck, and he said I was “self-extracting.” He said he had called an ambulance.
I didn’t have a scratch on me, but the ambulance took me to Fresno Regional Medical Center. It turned out the impact had caused perforations in my small intestine. The surgical team cut the damaged part out and sewed the ends back together. I had a really difficult time in the ICU, failing to wean off the ventilator for a few days, and having other complications which almost killed me. But I was lucky and pulled through after a month.
After I got out of the hospital, I called the CHP officer who had taken a report after the accident. He had only interviewed the truck driver, who had said I caused the accident by running the stop sign. It took me another month to be well enough to go to the scene of the accident. I was a bit stunned to see that there were no brake marks leading up to the intersection. I knocked on the door of the house at the intersection, asking about the man who had witnessed the accident. The people in the house said he had been transferred to Bakersfield.
I talked to a friend who had some experience with crop hauling, and learned that during crop season, there are no maximum hours for the crop haulers. And they have to rush to the processing plant and then rush back to keep up with the harvesters. So I think it was more likely that the driver was just tired and didn’t see me.
I recovered and went back to doing my water research and advocacy work, but I stay out of Westlands during crop harvest season now.
 According to Wikipedia, Karen Silkwood was a union activist who worked at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma. The facility made plutonium pellets and reportedly had numerous violations of health regulations which exposed workers to contamination. In 1974, Silkwood was on her way to meet with a New York Times journalist and a union official when she was in an accident. Her body was found in her car, which had run off the road and struck a culvert. A microscopic examination of the rear of Silkwood’s car showed paint chips that could have come only from a rear impact by another vehicle.
This blog post was updated on November 30, 2021.
3 thoughts on “Tales from the Water Wars — Westlands Accident”
Knowing some of the history of Westlands’s threats to those it doesn’t like, I can’t help but view this incident with suspicion.
Thank you for sharing this story, Deirdre. Very powerful. Glad you survived and hope your surgery went well today!!
Shocking story, glad you are recuperate!