Most of us have always believed that water flows downhill. We were recently corrected by Len Richardson, editor of the California Farmer who said, “Water tends to flow toward wealth.”
Richardson has good reason for this cynical view and it’s time for all Californians to take notice. Wealth has moved to take more and more control of California’s waters. The rise of water oligarchs is nothing new and was brought home to anyone who saw the movie “Chinatown.”
The action has now shifted to the San Joaquin Valley and to maneuvers there for privatizing control of water in the massive State Water Project. These are not work-a-day farmers we are talking about. One or two may own a broad-brimmed hat but their offices are in Sunnyvale and Beverly Hills.
The Kern Water Bank is an underground water storage facility, an aquifer, 32 square miles in area. Part of it extends under Interstate 5 below the Grapevine. It was developed by the Department of Water Resources with $74 million in taxpayer money. It stores water in times of plenty to be used in times of drought and cutbacks of state water. The Kern Water Bank stores 1 million acre-feet of water, the largest such storage in the world. From its initiation in 1988 to 1995, the DWR was unable to pump this stored water as planned. State law requires the DWR to gain local approval for pumping “local” groundwater. Kern County refused this approval.
In the Monterey Agreements of 1995, the DWR gave the Kern Water Bank to a newly organized Kern Water Bank Authority. In turn Kern County gave up a portion of the water that it had a right to sell to municipal users. The Kern Water Bank Authority consists of five water districts and one private company. The private company is the Westside Mutual Water Company. This company is part of a larger holding company, Roll International Corp., which also owns Paramount Farms, a collection of enterprises irrigating about 115,000 acres of tree crops year-round in the southern San Joaquin Valley. All of this: Roll, Westside Mutual, and Paramount Farms, is owned by Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Linda Resnick.
Paramount Farms, through Westside Mutual, owns 48.06 percent of the Kern Water Bank. The Resnicks also own a 40 percent interest in the Dudley Ridge Water District, which has 8.66 percent of the Kern Water Bank. This is tantamount to complete control.
The Monterey Agreements permit water contractors to resell the water they receive from the State Water Project. This means they become middlemen making profits on state-supplied water. If they choose to, they can dry up vast areas of productive agriculture and ship the water to municipalities south of the Tehachapi range. A coalition of agriculturalists and environmentalists has brought suit to challenge this.
A major farming enterprise, Sandridge Partners, has filed statements supporting this suit. To quote them extensively: “The State of California could have hardly foreseen that a private individual would own, control, and monopolize such a valuable public asset. The situation as it exists today seems to ‘game’ the State of California’s water policy. Meeting in ‘closed sessions,’ rewriting public policies, tailoring their edits to the interests of monopoly-like agribusiness corporations.”
But Sandridge is hardly taking the high road. It goes on to recommend that others in the water bank be permitted some of the socially dubious practices that now only Paramount Farms are allowed.
Sandridge Partners is controlled by the Vidovich family centered in the quaint little farming community of Los Altos Hills, where the median home price is $2.5 million. Their corporate (farm) headquarters in Sunnyvale also includes De Anza Properties, categorized as a peanut farm, and a major developer in the Silicon Valley. They have a 10 percent interest in that same Dudley Ridge Water District where Resnick has a 40 percent interest. There are eight such owners in this 47,000-acre water district where no one lives. The owners agreed that all could sell their water independently of the others.
Last year Sandridge Partners sold to the Mojave Water District the water rights to 14,000 acre-feet of water for $5,250 per acre-foot. We’re not talking peanuts here. It also means quite a bit of agricultural land will return to semi-desert aridity.
Let’s face it, these multimillionaires are not work-a-day farmers. They are not investors. They are speculators in water. Buying land for its water then alienating the water from the farmland is the next big thing for making millions.
Since the Department of Water Resources seems powerless to control this, the state Legislature has the obligation to step in, and soon, before the remainder of the State Water Project is privatized.#
Bob Williams is a Millville rancher and a retired UCLA professor. This opinion was published in Redding Record Searchlight-June 21, 2010