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A distinction without a difference

Restore the Delta’s just-released documentary, Over Troubled Waters, has touched a nerve with its assertion that some interests maneuvering to get Delta water want to sell it at a profit.

The State Water Contractors are accusing us of “fact-free discourse” in a new publication they’re calling “Delta Doozy.” To support their case, they point to a clip in the film’s trailer that doesn’t even appear in the documentary itself.

The Water Contractors note that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is being underwritten by public water agencies. They take issue with former Delta activist Robert Johnson’s 2009 assertion that efforts are underway to privatize most of the state’s water supply. (Robert has since moved on to other endeavors.)

We don’t actually use the word “privatize” in the documentary. Films such as Blue Gold: World Water Wars have already explored the worldwide trend of turning water, a public trust resource, into a commodity.

We DO note that despite the importance of agriculture for feeding people, those with water to sell can make more money in construction and real estate, which represent a much larger share of California’s economy. The documentary mentions three cases:

  • The Kern Water Bank was developed with state money and taxpayer approved bonds. Within a few years of getting control of the largest underground water storage facility in the nation, billionaire landowner Stewart Resnick and other Kern County water users were selling the water back to the state at a profit and making it available for developments like the luxury Tejon Ranch.
  • Sandridge Partners, a westside landowner, sold water to the Mojave Water Agency for $5,500 an acre foot, many times what they paid for it. Sandridge Partners is owned by the Vidovich family, which has already made a fortune replacing Silicon Valley orchards with housing tracts.
  • A Scottsdale developer, DMB Associates, made a deal with Nickel Family LLC, a Bakersfield farming operation, to purchase 8400 acre feet a year for 70 years to use for development 230 miles north of Bakersfield in the San Francisco Bay Area. The project is the controversial Cargill salt flats development in Redwood City.

In 2010, in an article titled “Investors Want Share of Water,” one online ag journal reported that “hundreds of millions of dollars are waiting to be invested in California’s water infrastructure. But there’s a tradeoff: the investors putting up the cash want a piece of agriculture’s available supplies, which they could sell to urban users for high prices.”

In the spring of 2010, with a drought underway, a conference was held in Santa Barbara on “Investing in Our Water Future.” The subjects included private equity investment in water, picking financial partners, and water marketing. The presenters included water contractors, the state Department of Water Resources, and investment advisors.

Public water agencies underwriting the BDCP are welcome to argue that they aren’t responsible if some of those buying the water turn around and sell it at a profit. They’re welcome to argue that this isn’t a case of socializing costs and privatizing profits.

We say, if it quacks like a duck . . . .

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