Why would a Beverly Hills billionaire donate big money to a congressman whose district is over two-hundred miles away from the billionaire’s business holdings? Because water flows uphill toward money and power, that’s why.
Though he lives in a Beverly Hills mansion sometimes known as “Versailles II,” Stewart Resnick’s biggest land holdings are in Kern County and comprise some 180,000 acres, mostly in pistachios. According to Mark Arax, “His 15 million trees in the San Joaquin Valley consume more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, consumes 587,000 acre-feet.”
Considering the recent drought, it’s miraculous that Resnick’s orchards are still alive and thriving. Even more miraculous, at least on the surface, is the planting of more trees during the height of the drought, including 79,000 acres of almonds and 73,000 acres of pistachios.
But the mystery of Stewart Resnick’s ability to defy Mother Nature is due far less to a miracle than to business as usual in an arid land where the power of politics is an even greater force than a record drought. Stuart Resnick gets water because he takes it from northern California by influencing public policy, and one of his chief water carriers in the U.S Congress is Jeff Denham.
In fact, from 2011-13, despite his district’s distance from Resnick’s vast holdings in Kern County, Jeff Denham was in the top ten recipients of Resnick’s generous donations to members of both political parties—when it comes to water grabs, the game is both high stakes and bipartisan.
Resnick and other corporate farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley need federal and state political power to deliver water because they long ago drained the mighty rivers and ruined the aquifers in their own region. That’s why Westlands Water District, one of the major players in the south San Joaquin water grab, spends even more money on lobbyists and politicians than even Stewart Resnick—some $600,000 in 2014 alone.
Northern California water has been diverted south for decades, and it’s all done at public expense using pumps, canals, and waterways paid for by tax dollars. Even while mainstream media and local politicians in Jeff Denham’s Congressional District 10 howl bloody murder about a state water grab, Oakdale Irrigation District’s (OID) business plan depends on sending water away from where it belongs here in the north and south to buyers like Westlands Water District.
And don’t think Oakdale’s wealthy farmers are unhappy about the arrangement. Among Jeff Denham’s biggest local supporters are OID farmers who get their irrigation water at prices below the cost of delivery. It’s all a nice arrangement for the big guys at the top of the water scheme, but sending water south while local wells run dry doesn’t make sense to the majority. It makes even less sense to municipal water users who keep seeing their rates go up.
The San Joaquin Valley is still known as, “The Appalachia of the West,” in part because all that water, which is a public resource, goes south by way of public infrastructure and political power but never trickles down enough to provide a way out for too many Valley citizens living in poverty.
In fact, when it comes to household use, over 100,000 residents of the San Joaquin Valley don’t even have safe drinking water, and many of them are the same hard-working people who tend nut orchards for water barons like Stewart Resnick. Because their own water isn’t safe, they’re forced to use bottled water at their own expense.
None of them will ever get help from Jeff Denham the way he helps their wealthy landlords. In fact, Denham routinely votes against safe water standards that would protect streams, rivers, and groundwater from polluted runoff and effluent—Denham’s approval from the League of Conservation voters stands at 6%, while his neighboring Congressman, Jerry McNerney, is rated 94% positive. At Clean Water Action, Jeff Denham gets a 7% rating for 2016 and McNerney comes in at 100% approval.
Sending northern California water south to arid landscapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles is a perversion of nature and the oldest water grab of all. Valley water should be for Valley citizens, not the favored few who keep politicians like Jeff Denham in office and so he can continue grabbing water at public expense.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.