This happened sometime around 1975 or '76, I'm not sure. But around there. I was sitting in a Basque restaurant near the old railroad station in Fresno, listening to George Ballis complain about his life.
Ballis came from the Saul Alinsky school of politics and had dedicated himself to fighting the big water boys of California. He never seemed to understand why millionaires should be getting federally subsidized water to grow crops that were sold at federally subsidized prices.
But this struggle was not going well. Ballis was losing.
It made him think back to his early days, when he stumbled across a seeming contradiction in the politics of the valley. That contradiction, he said, should have told him of the problems that lay ahead.
The contradiction went like this: The rich Republican farmers of the valley almost never elected Republicans to Congress. They elected Democrats. Year after year, term after term.
What goes, he asked an old friend who knew the valley. And the old friend laughed.
"Just follow the water," the friend said, paraphrasing another piece of famous advice.
It turned out, of course, that the Democratic congressmen sat on the crucial committees that delivered the water that made the farmers millionaires. So the congressmen, all Democratic, kept getting reelected with support from the farmers, all Republican.
It was water that drew them together and water that made them strong. This was a seamless coalition, Ballis said, without weak points, and that's why his side was losing.
Eventually, Ballis gave up on the reform business. I think he went into recycling. But the water coalition has endured.
And it was never limited to the valley. The rich farmers long ago bonded with the urban developers and water agencies of the south. They both wanted the same thing: cheap water delivered at taxpayer expense. So L.A. and Delano were one when it came to water. The circle was unbroken.
The coalition endured from governor to governor, senator to senator. It lasted through Pat Brown, then Ronald Reagan, then Jerry Brown. Nothing, and no one, made much difference.
Until now. It could be that the drought has done what George Ballis and decades of reform attempts could not. After 75 years or so, the coalition appears to be disintegrating.
This week, we shall see. In Sacramento, on Thursday, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey will hold the last hearing on his bill to change the rules for the federal water system in California.
The feds, through the Central Valley Project, deliver about 25% of the water in the state. At present, virtually all of it goes to farmers, and the law requires that it stay that way. Cities cannot buy, beg or borrow water from the CVP.
The Bradley bill would change that rule. It would give cities the right to buy CVP water from a willing seller. The only question would be price.
The farmers like this idea about as much as they like Meryl Streep. They see the Bradley bill as the foot in the door, something that looks suspiciously like a free market. And it may be just that.
In the past, the coalition would have presented itself foursquare against the threat of the Bradley bill. The cities would have joined the farmers, with both of California's senators and the governor dutifully in tow, and the result would have been a badly squashed Senator Bradley.
This year, I am wagering that the center of the coalition will not hold, that it will break apart under the strain and the old realities of California water will be changed forever. Here's how to tell if I'm right: Watch Carl Boronkay.
Boronkay is one of the kingpins of the coalition. He is the chief executive at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which delivers supplies to most cities in the south. As such, he's the most important link between the farmers and the cities.
And he may bolt.
The reason is simple. Boronkay wants some of the farmers' water. The cities he serves could wither within a decade if they don't get it. So Boronkay may throw his support to Bradley on Thursday and rend the coalition asunder.
What will happen if he does? The Bradley bill will have a good chance of becoming law and water no longer will be corraled by the farmers. It will go to those with the deepest pockets.
Beyond that, no one knows how it will shake out. It may impoverish some farm towns. It may fuel yet more new cities in the south.
In any case, it will be high noon for the old coalition on Thursday. So remember George Ballis, and watch Carl Boronkay.