Thoughts on Arax’s Kingdom from Dust

As everyone said at the time, Mark Arax’s reporting on the Resnicks‘ involvement in Kern is wonderful. I listened to interviews with Arax afterward. For this post, I am going to assume that you have the story open in a tab nearby; quoting as much as I’d otherwise need to would get long.

Thoughts:

Arax really gives Lynda Resnick her due. In the story and consistently through his radio interviews, he mentions her business and marketing skill. When interviewers bring up Stewart and not Lynda, he corrects them. Lynda Resnick is as much a piece of the story as Stewart and it is nice to see that explicitly laid out.

Similarly, Arax gets the story he does because he interviews a few of the field workers. They point him toward the Vidovich/Resnick illegal pipeline and discuss life in Lost Hills. Treating them as professionals and not anonymous labor tipped off Arax to the pipeline and salinity incursions.

***

Even Arax, as much a local as anyone could be, makes the mistake of underestimating the scale of the Resnicks’ holdings. He comments on the Resnicks removing 22,000 acres of trees to show that the drought threatened their holdings. He also tells us that the Resnicks own 180,000 acres in CA, irrigating 121,000 of them. For all that removing tens of thousands of acres sounds like a lot, it is still less than 20% of their irrigated acreage and less than 10% of their holdings in CA land. I have no doubt buying water during the drought diminished their profit margins in tree nuts and that some orchards weren’t worth irrigating with expensive water. But I don’t think that even tearing out 22,000 acres of trees reflects a threat to their business. It is yet bigger than that.

***

A couple things surprised me. I just didn’t expect an illegal, self-installed pipeline. When I talk about how hard it is to move water, I wasn’t expecting someone with infinite money, nor completely unpermitted small-scale infrastructure. I never imagined a public agency doing that, yet Dudley Ridge WD and Lost Hills WD allowed it (more on that later).

I was also surprised to read that Wonderful doesn’t hassle with precision agriculture. I think I remember from Arax’s book, King of California, that the Boswell Farming Company paid a lot of attention to detail. At a recent irrigation conference, I was surprised at the extent of technology some farming companies use to improve their yields or their profit margins. I wonder what is being lost by their acceptance of “mediocre” yields; they might be missing the first few years of declining yields from salinity

***

Stewart Resnick appears to have zero understanding of climate change. His description of a five-year drought as a surprising piece of bad luck and not the aridification that the past twenty years of climate modeling has consistently predicted means that he still doesn’t appreciate it. Stewart Resnick says that he has hired good people, but if none of them have been planning for climate change (aridification and loss of chilling hours) then they are not doing their jobs.

****

Resnick’s conclusion after the drought was that he should farm on lands with two water sources.

From now on, they’ll grow on land that offers a double protection against drought. “State or federal water isn’t enough. We want good groundwater, too.”

Thing is, everywhere in the Valley were he can also get good groundwater will also have more governance. Those lands have districts, and towns in them that aren’t on land owned by the Resnicks. They will have new neighbors, perhaps ones that don’t turn a blind eye to illegal pipelines. The south and west Valley are places that can be wholly owned, like the managers of the Dudley Ridge and Lost Hills water districts. But places with better water already have established interests. It will be much more expensive for the Resnicks to buy their way, if it is even possible. The new boards of directors, of districts and groundwater sustainability agencies, are going to be more difficult for one or two billionaires to control. I’m not sure that what the Resnicks have is replicable or portable.

***

At the end of his article and in every interview he gives, Mark Arax is dismayed by the future he predicts. He believes Vidovich and large farming companies will inevitably sell water away from farming. I agree with Arax that they intend to. I am less certain it will happen, for three reasons.

  • I don’t believe everyone, especially the people in the west valley who have junior water rights, will be selling off water as they retire from farming.  A great deal of that future water will simply not fall on California in a form that is economical to catch.  The land will be retired, yes, but the water that Arax imagines being sold will not arrive in the first place.  Or, it will be kept in the ground to meet new sustainability standards.
  • It is true that many more houses will be built, but housing does not need to require the amount of water that we have been allotting to it.  New standards for indoor water use, laws like the model landscape ordinance, and an ethic of dense infill mean that the inevitable new housing does not demand large amounts of previously agricultural water.
  • We could choose.  We could decide that we want to have a thriving farming community on the east side of the valley, because it is nice and we like farming towns and we want food security for California.  We could make laws to support a couple million acres of farming preserve, like land use laws and changing water rights.  We could decide that what an open market allows is actually fairly shitty, and not a good use of our ag land nor our rivers. We can choose to avoid the fate Arax predicts, because we know there will be substantial change within a generation and we would like to shape what is left for the benefit of everyone who lives in the Valley.

***

There is a little bit more, but I am properly ashamed to write it.  Still, IIDSSM, I am very pleased by how well Arax’s reporting matches what I have deduced over the years from a distance.  I’ve used a good education, news stories, government reports and satellite pictures to come to conclusions and I came to much of the same understandings that Arax did.  I thought that it was bizarre that the irrigation districts on the west side have no effective oversight despite their structural similarities to districts in more populated areas, and that proved to lead to illegal diversions.  I talked about these areas as feudal societies, and Arax’s reporting confirms that.  I think creeping salinity is going to be huge, just like the bureaucrats report, and so do the fieldmen that Arax talks to.  I still doubt my notions of the future of water in the Valley, but this article was satisfying for me.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Thoughts on Arax’s Kingdom from Dust

  1. Michael Gagan

    Exceptionally well stated, which is not exceptional for you.

    Thanks for coming back from a break to On the Public Record!

    Michael

  2. Adam Keats

    I agree with your take on the Resnicks removing 22K acres of trees: big deal! I’m sure Arax’s perspective comes from his interviews with Vidovich, who seems to want to take the Resnicks down a notch whenever he can. For example, Vidovich’s appearance in Water & Power doesn’t make a lot of sense (what was he thinking?) until you get to his quotes about the Resnicks, where he gets to throw a bunch of shadenfreude shade on poor Stewart. That’s a pure ego battle that Arax brilliantly tapped into (and that the Water & Power folks presumably borrowed). What I love is watching audiences’ responses to that quote at screenings; they almost always crack up when Vidovich starts playing that sad violin…

  3. Noel Park

    We could be smart enough to change before disaster strikes, but I doubt it. I am always reminded of Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism”. Which is kind of what Vidovich is doing.

    If it’s any consolation, there are plenty of hedge fund wise guys who have bought up ag land and are looking (or not looking) at the same long range issues as the Reznicks. Some say that they have a plan to get their money out before the inevitable happens. Maybe.

    Anyway, we are lucky to have people like you who are sounding the alarm. Hopefully, we can shelter our families from the worst of the fallout.

    All the best.

  4. Noel Park

    BTW, did you see the article in the LA Times yesterday about the Feds’ push to raise the pool of Shasta dam? They note that the latest version of the bill releases Westlands from their prior commitment to pay for part of it.

  5. The Resnicks have made a fortune by getting the Delta farmers and families to subsidize the water for their almonds and by using the Kern Water Bank, a gift from DWR, to store cheap Article 21 water which in effect is a subsidy from all the other State Water Project contractors.

    It is common knowledge that the Delta watershed is over committed by a factor of 5…that means that every gallon of water has been promised 5 times. This is the classic “Paper Water”; water that exists only as a “wish and a prayer” (Third District Court of Appeal)

    The only way to solve California’s water problems is to adjudicate the surface water of the Delta watershed (all 20 rivers including the Trinity) with a public trust analysis…this is what saved Mono Lake. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

    • Noel Park

      Ame n!

    • Diane Livia

      I agree with adjudicating surface waters with a public trust analysis. But the public trust cannot include profit-making, especially at the rate going on in CA ag today. We must, as a State, decide to use our water for the pubic good — and that means determining that cornering the world market in almonds, or selling hay to China, or any of the hundreds of ways the yield from our water supply makes profits for L and S Resnick, among others, must cease. Our water should first and foremost be used for people (clean drinking water in the SJ Valley, food security in CA and the US, healthy functioning ecosystems). If there’s some left over to make a profit on international commodities, maybe then it could be used for that.

  6. Don B

    I found the article disturbing, for much the same reasons as you state. It was disappointing, but not surprising, to see the cavalier attitude towards water scarcity and thievery by the Resnick operation. For many of us who are left of center on politics, we like to hope that there’s a slow trend towards a sense of communal responsibility, but this article dashed that hope.

    • Diane Livia

      Honestly, can’t imagine what you see creating a trend towards a sense of communal responsibility. The wealth gap in the US, increasing since the 1970s and having reached robber-baron levels recently, is the clearest evidence of a fast and faster trend exactly in the opposite direction: away from communal responsibility and deeper and deeper into disregard for the general population.

  7. vjigour

    I read Arax’ piece as soon as I learned of it, as a huge fan of King of California. Don’t have it open right now, but one thing that keeps resonating in my memory of it is the part about California pistachios losing global market share because folks in other countries prefer unirrigated pistachios. Makes me wonder: 1.) what we are missing (not sure I’d recognize the taste difference between irrigated and non-irrigated) and 2.) why doesn’t Wonderful also try unirrigated pistachios? Of course, given the pending climate change impacts on the crop, its days in California seem numbered. Could that be the reason dry farming them hasn’t been attempted?