A newcomer arriving into California’s San Joaquin Valley – the most lucrative and industrialized agricultural region in the United States – might think that the entire place is burning. On the horizon in all directions the brown hue of the air suggests a distant fire.
As the traveler advances along, say, Highway 99, the fire appears to peel away, a deep stain floating off in the distance, as if forever clinging to the edges of the sky. Upon moving farther in, one slowly realizes that the blaze does not recede. The traveler does not move toward the fire, but within it.
The arid San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the country, a daily cloud of smog and soot that rises from interstate automobile traffic, the belching of a few million cows packed into mega-dairies, the incineration of toxic waste, and the constant fueling of irrigation pumps and food processing plants – all weaving a faded yellow curtain that hangs in the air.
In a region where so much is burning, nothing is more valuable than water.
No one knows this better than Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of one of the biggest privately held agribusiness corporations in the United States – Roll International – or, as their website proclaims: “the largest privately held company you’ve never heard of.” Roll’s holdings include Paramount Farming, the largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios in the world; Paramount Citrus; Fiji Water; Suterra, a pesticide brand; Teleflora; PomWonderful; and the Neptune Pacific Line, a global shipping company.
A large part of the Resnicks’ billion-dollar business entails growing more than 5 million trees in the cracked and dry Westside soil of the San Joaquin Valley, where rain doesn’t fall and rivers do not flow. Kern County receives only five inches of rainfall a year and most of its aquifers have been depleted, contaminated, or both. None of Paramount’s pistachio or almond trees would survive without the daily application of irrigation water pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and down the length of the California Aqueduct.
Over the past two decades, the Resnicks have been at the heart of the most controversial moves in California water politics. When the Resnicks began buying land here in the 1980s from Mobil and Texaco, they acquired contracts for California State Water Project deliveries from the California Aqueduct. From far behind the scenes they helped rewrite the contracts that govern the California State Water Project, commandeered a $74 million dollar state water bank, and encouraged Senator Dianne Feinstein to intervene on behalf of agribusiness in the conflicts over the ecological collapse of the Delta.
The Resnicks’ political involvement is driven by a simple force: money. The Resnicks have made a lot of it over the past 20 years by hoarding state water resources in ways now being challenged in court. In a land of outrageous poverty, the Resnicks have built a billion-dollar fortune by growing trees with water from an artificial river while the migrant workers who tend the irrigation pumps don’t have access to potable water in their homes.
The ecology of the entire Central Valley, from Redding to Bakersfield, has been remade over the past 150 years by the engineered movement of water for large-scale agriculture in the valley and real estate development on the coast. “The Westside contains very marginal land that never should have been irrigated,” said Richard Walker, professor of geography at UC Berkeley and author of The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California. “The California Aqueduct was for the Westside, toxic land.”
The Eastside was subdivided and sold in the 1880s for small, lucrative, irrigated farms, Walker told me. “The good water was developed early,” he said. “The post-1940 dams and big canals are to make up for dry areas.”
Started during the Great Depression, the federal Central Valley Project contains 20 dams and 500 miles of canals able to store and move about 9 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an area of one acre to a depth of one foot, roughly the amount of water consumed by two families of four in a year.) Advocates at the time argued that the Central Valley Project would enable farmers to pump less water from underground. Instead, growers used the subsidized federal water to bring 3 million new acres into irrigated production, and continued pumping all the same.
Jealous landowners of vast barren tracts on the Westside of the southern San Joaquin saw the bonanza of the Central Valley Project and demanded a project of their own. The result of their lobbying efforts is the California State Water Project. Constructed in the 1960s, the project includes 19 dams, 10 energy plants, 20 pumping stations, and a 444-mile concrete river: the California Aqueduct.
When the Resnicks went shopping for agricultural land in the late 1980s – looking for a “passive investment” Stewart Resnick told one reporter – the Westside is where they went. Soon after the Resnicks bought into the Westside, multiple drought years between 1987 and 1994 proved that the artificial bounty of the California Aqueduct would not be enough to protect their investment. They needed a back-up plan.