On July 26th the New York Times reported on the problems of water banking in California:
Peter Key knew something was strange when the water levels in his tropical fish tank began to go down last summer. Then the washing machine took 40 minutes to fill, and the toilets would not flush.
But even as Mr. Key and neighbors spent $14,000 to deepen their community well here, they had identified a likely culprit.
They blamed water banking, a system in which water-rights holders — mostly in the rural West — store water in underground reservoirs either for their own future use or for leasing to fast-growing urban areas.
So the neighbors’ small local water utility has gone to state court to challenge the wealthy farming interests that dominate two of the country’s largest water banks.
Viewed as test cases for the size and scope of water-banking operations, the lawsuits claim that enormous withdrawals of water by the banks lowered the water table, causing geological damage, service disruptions and costly repairs.
Water managers and the farmers they serve have long been major political players here in Kern County, a center of conservative political power. But even inside these tight circles, there is increasing friction as governments, businesses — especially agriculture — and a population that has swelled by 26 percent in a decade all compete for water. Even a trendy fruit, the pomegranate, plays a role in these water wars.
The minute I saw the word pomegranate I knew instantly that Bard College trustee Stewart Resnick had to be implicated in the inability of Peter Kay to flush his toilet. Sure enough, the article goes on to report:
Pumping out huge amounts of stored water in dry years was thought to have little impact on the underground geology — at least until Mr. Key’s shower head sputtered. Now engineers believe it reversed the area’s underground hydraulic gradient, turning a hill-shaped water table, accessible by shallow wells, into a valley. The trigger for the huge withdrawals was a drought that began in 2007. Kern County’s allocation of water from Northern California was cut. Then, in the 40 months beginning in March 2007, roughly half the banks’ capacity was pumped out to keep fruit and nut trees alive.
“I don’t think anyone fully appreciated the magnitude of the impact they would have,” said Mr. Averett of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District.
POM Wonderful, part of the fruit-drink empire owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, makes its profits from pomegranate trees kept green by the Kern Water Bank Authority. The authority, technically a public agency, is controlled by the Paramount Farming Company, which like POM, is a subsidiary of Roll Global, a company owned by the billionaire Resnicks.
If you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, you will be reminded of the malevolent water utility baron Noah Cross who was guilty of diverting precious water resources to the benefit of agribusiness when he wasn’t busy screwing his daughter, played by Faye Dunaway. Now I have no reason to believe that Stewart Resnick is screwing his daughter (don’t know if he has one), but there is little doubt that he is just as greedy and evil as Noah Cross.
While I am pleased to see the New York Times shining its spotlight on the Resnicks, you really have to go to the Earth Island Institute’s website to get the goods. In an article titled “Lost in the Valley of Excess“, John Gibler does not mince his words:
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.
To ward off the impact of investigative reporting on their skullduggery, the Resnicks have used extensive PR machinery to try to make POM Wonderful look practically like a hippy farming co-op in Vermont. Their website declares:
POM Wonderful’s commitment to wellness also means caring about the well-being of our planet. Our sustainable business practices include:
• Using the latest drip-irrigation technologies in our orchards to minimize use of one of California’s scarcest resources – water.
• Making productive use of every single part of the pomegranate. What’s left over is used as cattle feed – no landfills for us!
• Manufacturing our bottles right next to our filling plant, which means no wasteful transportation of air-filled bottles.
• Employing an intelligent routing system to ensure our products travel the fewest miles possible to reach store shelves.
• LEED Silver certified corporate offices in Los Angeles, CA.
We invite you to enjoy our fresh pomegranates, our 100% pomegranate juice and our growing line of POMx-based products.
I don’t know if the Resnicks really believe their own bullshit, but they have managed to ingratiate themselves to California’s liberal elite, as well as the corporate environmentalist outfit called Conservation International upon whose board Stewart Resnick sits. (Resnick is not the only scoundrel on the board. It also includes Jared Diamond, the “environmentalist” who has hailed Chevron as a “Green” corporation.) If you go to their website, they have a page on Safeguarding Fresh Water that states:
Fresh water also harbors the greatest concentration of life on Earth — greater than either terrestrial or marine biomes. Though it covers less than a fraction of 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, fresh water provides habitat for more than 10 percent of known animals and about one-third of all known vertebrate species. And, more than 40 percent of all fish species are found in fresh water — even though it is, relatively speaking, a drop in the bucket.
The health and abundance of these species is a crucial indicator of the health of freshwater ecosystems. These ecosystems, in turn, play an important role in moderating the location, distribution, and timing of freshwater flows, ensuring that we receive a multitude of benefits and services.
Putting Resnick on the board of a group that is pledged to safeguard fresh water is like putting David Duke on the board of the NAACP.
And it is not just California’s water that this character is hoarding for the pursuit of filthy lucre. He has colonized Fiji for the sole purpose of mining its water to market to the unknowing middle class all too easily seduced by bullshit advertising about the water’s healthiness and the company’s commitment to ecosystems. Last December the Resnicks pulled out of Fiji because their profits were threatened by the government’s decision to impose a new tax of 15 Fijian cents (about 10 cents) a liter on companies extracting more than 3.5 million liters of water a month. Previously, the tax rate was one third of one cent. I would say that Fiji is better off without them, just as California would be. In a world in which the bare necessities of life are becoming supportable on dwindling arable soil, we simply don’t need pomegranates and pistachio nuts, except maybe on special occasions.
The December 1 2010 New Zealand Herald reported on Fiji’s branding:
If Fiji Water’s decision to pull out of the nation stands, it is difficult to see how the product can survive.
The trendy brand is built on the allegedly unique and life-enhancing properties of the underground spring from which it comes, which is said to be particularly pure.
That marketing pitch has been enough to turn Fiji Water into a favourite of the celebrity classes, drunk by everyone from Scarlett Johansson and Justin Timberlake to Nicole Kidman and the Obamas.
Fiji Water has styled itself as an eco-friendly product, claiming it pays to offset all the carbon emissions which come from transporting square plastic bottles from one of the world’s most remote locations to the refrigerators of major cities.
Al Gore swigs it while delivering speeches about global warming, while the firm’s owners are Los Angeles philanthropists Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who have given millions of dollars to progressive causes and Democratic Party politicians.
Critics have scoffed at the notion that bottled mineral water can be environmentally responsible, and point out that many Fijians have no access to clean drinking water, and suffer from diseases such as typhoid.
Others have raised eyebrows at the firm’s corporate structure – court records show that in 2008 it was owned by an entity in the tax haven of Luxembourg, though some assets have recently been transferred to Switzerland.
The Earth Island Institute article makes a point of connecting the dots between the water-starved residents of the land abutting their pomegranate latifundia and their Fiji operations:
Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley have effectively had their water privatized. Their communities have been left out of the major water projects. The groundwater basins have been depleted and contaminated by pesticides and nitrates from the very agribusinesses that employ them. Little to no state funding makes it to their local water systems, leaving them to buy bottled water at the store or from a vending machine. Meanwhile, the Resnicks, in what would seem a scripted irony, own Fiji Water, “the #1 premier bottled water in the US.”
Conservation International is not the only faux progressive board that Stewart Resnick sits on. He is also on the board of trustees of Bard College, my alma mater. Its president Leon Botstein has a remarkable gift for co-opting sleazebags like Stewart Resnick who are in a position to make major donations to facilitate the school’s ambitious colonization program of colleges around the world on behalf of board member George Soros’s Popperian ideology, especially when palms are greased in the process.
In a July 6 interview with Hudson Valley Magazine, Botstein reflected on his achievements at Bard College, where he—like a North Korean despot—is president for life:
Botstein speaks passionately about the need to ramp up scientific literacy in this country. “Increasingly, the issues that face us, politically, have some component of science in them: the environment, energy, employment, tech, health, disease. This country needs more engineers, more scientists; that is crucial for the future of the American economy.”
I am all for ramping up scientific literacy but I am also for ramping down corporate control of our political system, higher education and society in general. For all of Botstein’s glib appropriation of progressive language, this is something that he would militantly resist. After all, his mini-empire is ultimately linked to the fortunes of a decaying imperial system.