[env-trinity] LA Times 8 18 10

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Thu Aug 19 15:01:32 PDT 2010


Something's not right about this California water deal

L.A. Times-8/18/10

By Michael Hiltzik 

Commentary

 

Students of California's history of gold and oil rushes know it's filled
with examples of profiteering, conspiracy, influence-peddling and other
chicanery.

 

So there's no reason the story should be any different with that liquid gold
of the 21st century, water.

 

That's the theme of a lawsuit filed a few weeks ago alleging there's
something smelly about how a group of private interests - notably a huge
agribusiness owned by the wealthy Southern California couple Stewart and
Lynda Resnick - got control of an underground water storage project the
state had already spent $75 million to develop.

 

The lawsuit was filed by a group of water agencies and environmental groups
contending that the transaction was essentially a gift of public property to
private interests and therefore violates the state constitution.

 

They're asking a judge to reverse the deal. That way, they contend, the
storage facility can be integrated into the state's water management plan,
so a precious and dwindling natural resource can serve everyone in the
state, not just a few powerful farm companies and real estate developers.

 

"By giving this resource away, not only have we lost money on the deal, but
we've lost a mechanism to use this water for the most beneficial purposes,"
Adam Keats of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the lead
attorney on the lawsuit, told me recently.

 

The storage facility is the Kern Water Bank, a complex of wells, pumps and
pipelines on a 20,000-acre parcel of abandoned farmland southwest of
Bakersfield. The water bank was initially part of the $1.75-billion
bond-funded State Water Project, which provides water for 25 million
Californians and irrigates 750,000 acres.

 

For reasons that still seem murky, in 1995 the state gave up on the bank and
turned it over to Kern County water authorities. They promptly ceded it to a
local consortium of public and private entities, the largest of which was
Westside Mutual Water Co.

 

The lawsuit observes that Westside is a subsidiary of the Resnick-owned
Paramount Farms, the largest grower and processor of pistachios and almonds
in the world.

 

Paramount and the other users pay for the water put into the bank, but the
storage capacity assures a steady irrigation supply even in dry years.
Paramount acknowledges that without the water bank, it probably wouldn't
have planted the nut trees, which can't survive without regular watering.

 

The second-biggest player in the water bank is Tejon Ranch Co., which is
planning a 26,000-acre resort community in the nearby Tehachapi Mountains.

 

What did the state get for the bank in 1995? The buyers gave up the right to
45,000 acre-feet of water annually from the State Water Project, an
entitlement some value at $30 million.

 

But the lawsuit says that in real terms, the state got almost nothing. The
water, it contends, was "paper water," a phantom allocation from a portion
of the State Water Project that will never be built and therefore has no
value.

 

In fact, the lawsuit says, because the annual fees paid to the State Water
Project by the bank's owners had been partially based on the allocation,
they actually saved money by giving up the rights. (One acre-foot of water
is about 326,000 gallons, or a year's supply for two families of four.)

 

Officers of the Kern Water Bank say the lawsuit is simply a case of sour
grapes, and note that the new owners have invested more than $30 million to
turn the state's pipe dream into reality.

 

"This wasn't perceived to be a gift at the time," says William D.
Phillimore, chairman of the Kern Water Bank Authority, chairman of Westside
Mutual Water Co., and executive vice president of Paramount Farms. "It was
considered a fairly risky proposition."

 

Westside and the other new owners overcame bureaucratic roadblocks that had
flummoxed the state, he says. They completed the design, installed all the
necessary equipment and maintain the facility today.

 

"This is something that people paid for 15 years ago, and because of the
money they've invested it's perceived at the moment to be a relative
success. I don't think any of the participants would look kindly at someone
saying it should not have happened."

 

Now we come to the direct beneficiaries of the deal. The owner of Paramount
and the Westside water company is Roll International Corp., one of America's
largest private companies. It's owed by the multimillionaire Resnicks.

 

You may know Roll better as the former owner of the collectibles firm
Franklin Mint and as the purveyor today of Fiji Water. That's the paragon of
conspicuous consumption marketed on the theme that it's socially responsible
to import your bottled drinking water from an idyllic Pacific island where
only about half the population has access to protected water sources, and
where the government is a military junta whose disdain for civil liberties
wouldn't raise eyebrows at a conference of Mideast oil sheikdoms. The
Resnicks hang with green activists such as Barbra Streisand and Laurie
David, so no one examines their marketing too closely.

 

Roll International hasn't played an entirely positive role on water issues
in the Central Valley. Back in September, Stewart Resnick insinuated himself
into the question of whether the severe drought in the region should be
blamed on environmental restrictions designed to help revive fisheries and
river habitats.

 

This fatuous fish-vs.-people controversy had been ginned up with the help of
experts like TV commentator Sean Hannity and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-
Thousand Oaks), whose goal was to pin the drought not on Mother Nature but
on the "environmental left."

 

In a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Resnick accused federal
agencies of "sloppy science" in imposing those restrictions. He demanded a
new scientific study.

 

Feinstein, possibly aware that Resnick and his wife had made political
donations of nearly $500,000 over the previous four years, mostly to
Democrats, calculated how high she needed to jump. She pushed the government
to fund a study by the National Academy of Sciences, which as it turned out
reported in March that the restrictions were, indeed, "scientifically
justified."

 

Phillimore, the Paramount executive, says that "the water bank enabled us to
plant permanent crops," because Paramount knew it could water its trees even
in droughts. That sounds like an acknowledgement that the water bank has
encouraged business decisions that wouldn't otherwise be smart for a
semiarid region.

 

As water becomes even more precious, it will soon be obvious that such usage
isn't smart under any circumstances.

 

If one is forced to choose between devoting water to sustaining nut trees
permanently in a near-desert, or finding the most efficient use for it among
all possible options, what would be the right way to go - that is, if the
choice weren't already made via an ill-considered decision now 15 years
old?#

 

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 

 

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20100818-1,0,381499.column

 

 

Byron Leydecker, JcT

Chair, Friends of Trinity River

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 land/fax

415 519 4810 mobile

 <mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net

 <mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
(secondary)

 <http://fotr.org/> http://www.fotr.org 

 

 

 

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