by John Gibler
December 2, 2010
from AlterNet Website
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.
Roll’s holdings include,
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.
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 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
The Eastside was subdivided and sold in the 1880s for small, lucrative, irrigated farms, Walker told me.
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.
Constructed in the 1960s, the project includes
19 dams, 10 energy plants, 20 pumping stations, and a 444-mile concrete
river: the California Aqueduct.
They needed a back-up plan.
After a series of backroom negotiations, the
state signed over the Kern Water Bank to five water districts and a private
company. The private company, Westside Mutual Water Company, is a paper
company owned by the Resnicks, and the water districts are controlled by
agribusinesses, including Paramount.
On June 3, 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity and a group of six plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the private control of the water bank. A separate lawsuit filed by a smaller pistachio grower alleges that the Resnicks sold water from the Kern Water Bank for a profit, a violation of state public utilities law.
Still another lawsuit filed by Kern County water
districts asked the court to halt pumping from the bank and investigate how
much water can be drawn without drying up local wells. The Fresno Bee
reported that the water table has fallen by 115 feet in just three years, an
unprecedented drop. Three of the last four years were dry, and almond and
pistachio trees cannot go that long without water.
Since taking over the Kern Water Bank, Paramount
has more than doubled its production of almonds and pistachios, becoming the
largest grower and processor of the nuts in the world. And the Resnicks made
the Forbes list of billionaires.
The contrast could not be sharper.
The Resnicks’ Beverly Hills home looks more like
an embassy than a house and the couple controls more water than any other
single agribusiness in the state. The farmworkers of Lost Hills live in
mobile homes and cannot drink the water from their taps. The crops they tend
drink better, and cheaper, water than they do.
But to the casual traveler the place would probably seem lost.
A visit to the town reveals the intertwined fates of water and migrant laborers in California agriculture: Both are pulled hundreds of miles from their places of origin and used to extract wealth from the land.
Lost Hills, which stretches for about two
hundred yards on either side of Highway 46 in the northwestern corner of
Kern County, is a twenty-first century company town.
Many stop off at the Village Market store to buy
bottled water or fill up five-gallon jugs at a vending machine.
All public affairs must be conducted in Bakersfield, about 40 miles to the southeast.
A small community health clinic, elementary
school, local utility district, and county fire station make up the social
services available. Two small food stores, a barbershop, an auto repair
shop, and three taco trucks, called loncheras, comprise the local commerce.
The nearest place to deposit a check or go to a supermarket is Wasco, 20
One resident charted the local demographics this way:
The homes are small, single story, simple, and clean, the yards and porches without clutter.
There are two trailer parks, each with over a hundred mobile homes slotted one next to the other in rows and circles, everything sun-bleached and worn, and everything impeccably well cared for. If abandoned is the first descriptive term to come to mind here, it is followed soon by dignified.
These are working people, and their work ethic
can be read in their tidy houses and mobile homes and inside their spotless
kitchens. At the same time, the community is unmistakably poor. Thirty
percent of the people in Lost Hills receive incomes below the federal
poverty level. Nearly everyone labors in the fields for minimum wage.
Wilentz also cited a “vanity essay” penned by Lynda Resnick that describes her house as,
The Los Angeles Business Journal estimates the Resnicks’ worth at $1.79 billion.
During the recession, when the San Joaquin Valley became an epicenter of unemployment and home foreclosures, the Resnicks saw their fortune grow by about $300 million. During the dry years, when pumping from the Kern Water Bank caused the local water table to drop 115 feet, the Resnicks were making bank.
The couple is what the nonprofit world likes to call “major donors.”
They’ve given over $4 million to political campaigns,
according to a recent California Watch analysis. In 2009, the Resnicks gave
$55 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The per capita income
in Lost Hills in 2000 was $8,317. The Resnicks handed the LA art scene more
than double the combined income of the entire population of Lost Hills.
Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill at the end of the 2010 legislative session. Aurelio is an irrigator; there is no rest for his labor. He has worked at Paramount for 13 years.
When asked about his lack of a day off, he responded:
Aurelio, his wife, and three children live in a small, clean mobile home in a trailer park and pay $450 a month in rent.
Aurelio talks about his work as if recounting tales of adventure - when he speaks his voice lifts and his eyes widen. He has followed jobs from Mexico City to Texas, Los Angeles to Lost Hills.
He said of his years of labor:
He had no harsh words for his supervisors or employers at Paramount, though he did not know much about the latter.
Another Paramount farm-worker, Fernando, hails from Chiapas in far southern Mexico and has been in Lost Hills for seven years, scraping together money to send back to his wife and son.
He works 58 hours a week for Paramount: 10 hours a day during the week and eight on Saturday. He earns $8 an hour.
Asked roughly how many field workers are undocumented, he said:
No one working for Paramount spoke an ill word of the company, though the family members of employees and ex-employees I spoke with did.
One man who had worked more than ten years for
the company told of being fired after a knee injury on the job. He had to go
to court to force the company to pay for his surgery. Most other complaints
had to do with the company’s low wages.
I walked into Paramount’s Lost Hills office one day last July to see if I could speak to someone there.
I was given a phone number in Los Angeles for
Roll International. I called and was asked to call back. I did and was
routed to a recorded message. I left a message after the tone, as
instructed. No one returned my call.
That time the receptionist told me straight:
When I asked her to whom I should address my research questions she responded,
Then she hung up.
The San Joaquin River is mostly diverted for
irrigation before it can reach the Delta and the Sacramento is largely
lifted out of the southern tip of the Delta and pumped down the San Joaquin
Valley for irrigation.
and Delta communities want to reduce water exports. Irrigators in the San
Joaquin and their strange bedfellows in the powerful Metropolitan Water
District of Southern California, which draws water pumped through the Delta,
want to increase water exports. There is one thing all sides agree on: The
Delta is a disaster waiting to explode.
Several Delta fish species hang on the verge of
collapse, but the tiny, endangered Delta Smelt has become the cause célèbre
for environmental lawsuits seeking to stop Delta pumping and the bête noir
for agribusiness lobbyists who claim that attempts to save the inch-long
minnow come at the expense of jobs.
The fish in question is an indicator species; its extinction represents full-scale ecosystem failure. The farmers in question represent the largest agribusiness firms in the country who face not bankruptcy, but simply a limit on the amount of water they can rely upon from the Delta.
The battle in the Delta is not one of fish v. farmers, but collapse v. reliability.
Making do with less is blasphemy in San Joaquin Valley agribusiness.
Every major water development in the region has
been predicated on the idea of staring collapse in the face and demanding
more: the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, the Kern Water
Bank, and the current drive to spend another $11 billion in bond funds to
build more dams and canals and gun the motor of an engine already on the
cusp of failure.
Indeed, the California Farm Bureau supports the
water bond measure to build more dams. It also lobbied successfully against
Senator Florez’s bill to overhaul farm labor overtime rules.
Hamilton said that water sales were not Paramount’s main interest.
True enough. When I asked Aurelio if, during his
13 years working as an irrigator at Paramount a tree had ever died from lack
of water, his answer came without a hint of uncertainty: “No.”
Farm-workers 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 lack of access to clean and safe drinking water in farm-worker communities speaks to decades of exclusion from federal and state water development.
The exclusion is not only a question of bitter histories, but also current policy.
The $11.2 billion dollar water bond that Governor Schwarzenegger shifted from the 2010 to the 2012 ballot targets less than one percent of its funds for disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin and other regions, according to an analysis of the bond by the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.
While the residents of Lost Hills are forced to buy expensive bottled water or suffer the consequences of drinking contaminated water, the Resnicks, with their control over the Kern Water Bank, have stored enough water to fill San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir - twice.
Court records show that in early 2007, the
Resnicks had 755,868 acre feet in the Kern Water Bank, enough to keep their
trees blooming during both a statewide drought and a global recession.
Asked if she drinks the tap water in her home she said no, that,
So every three days she fills up her jug.
On a blazing July day, she pushed her full, 5-gallon jug of drinking water from the vending machine back to her house in a baby carriage. About two hundred yards down the road, the California Aqueduct was full and flowing fast.