On March 6, in what was called “a victory for environmentalists, sport fishers, Delta farmers and State Water Project taxpayers,” a judge ruled that the state Department of Water Resources provided an insufficient environmental review of impacts of the Kern Water Bank.
Though it’s gotten little local attention, the short history of the Kern Water Bank (KWB) recounts one of the biggest water scandals in recent times. In essence, the KWB was privatized, in large part because of the political clout of Stewart Resnick and few others who were the chief beneficiaries of what amounted to a clandestine giveaway of a public resource.
Resnick became a major shareholder in the bank, which enabled him and his cronies to manipulate water for their own immense profits:
“We’re pleased that the court agreed with us,” said Adam Keats, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We now have a chance to shine light on the murky operation of the Kern Water Bank, including its role in the destruction of the Bay Delta ecosystem and in fueling speculative real estate development and unsustainable agribusiness practices like growing nut trees in Kern County.”
The ruling in Sacramento’s Superior Court was a potent reminder that water ultimately belongs to the people. There are few benefits when a state faces a severe drought, but the current crisis has forced people to take a close look at how often water has been appropriated in ways that damage the public trust.
The old game of socializing costs and privatizing profits has always been especially easy with water, mostly because people start caring about it only when the cost goes up or when it’s gone altogether. Today’s ongoing drought is leaving farmers and even entire towns with the prospect of no water at all. It’s also prompting people to ask where their water goes.
Even the Modesto Bee, which only last year was urging the Modesto Irrigation District to push a widely unpopular sale of water to San Francisco, has taken to reminding readers that water belongs to the public. Bee Opinion Page Editor Mike Dunbar recently wrote,
“But in reality, all the water in California is our water. Every citizen owns it, just like we own the parks and the roads. It’s a shared resource; a common good. So when someone tries to profit unduly off water, well, that’s just wrong.”
Lawsuits like those against the Kern Water Bank offer a cogent message that taking water from one place and moving it to another can damage and even imperil resources like salmon, farmland, and entire ecosystems.
In Stanislaus County, lawsuits filed by Protect Our Water and Environmental Resources and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance claim that authorities failed to consider environmental impacts when issuing permits for scores of powerful wells on the County’s east side. In theory, groundwater belongs to the people who own the ground above it. In fact, groundwater depletion has multiple effects, ranging from draining the water from neighbors to subsidence severe enough to damage roads, canals, and buildings.
Today’s water crisis has forced the state’s citizens to take a closer look at where their water goes. When they learn the sobering details, they may finally be ready to take their water back from the profiteers and schemers who have perverted its uses.