Remember at the peak of the drought when, every time you ate an almond, you reminded yourself that a gallon of water went into that, and you shortened your next shower to a six-second dry spritz? Well, the drought officially ended, of course, and we stopped worrying. Unfortunately, it’s been a largely rain-free winter so far — so much so that only this week, the percentage of the state that’s classified as “abnormally dry” jumped from 54 to 73. (It was only 22 percent three months ago.)
Last year’s rainy winter was an aberration, and the long-term expectation for California is that the agriculture-heavy state of nearly 40 million people will only get drier. So it’s a bit shocking to read in this illustrated California Sunday photo-essay by Mark Arax that a single Central Valley farmer uses about two-thirds as much water in a year as the entire city of Los Angeles, home to more than 1 in 10 Californians.
Stewart Resnick, 81, doesn’t entirely know how much land he owns, but his estimate of 180,000 acres — of which 121,000 are irrigated — translates into 281 square miles. By area, that’s almost six San Franciscos and the equivalent of more than half of Marin County. To produce his almonds, pistachios, citrus, and other crops, Resnick uses more than 400,000 acre-feet of water, which represents more than two-thirds the annual consumption of the City of Angels (587,000 acre-feet).
As the owner of 15 million trees, Resnick is the largest single water user in the Western United States, and he’s both a titan of agribusiness and of marketing. He and his wife Lynda are responsible for the rebranding of mandarins as easy-to-peel Cuties and the association of pomegranates with antioxidant-fueled wellness through POM Wonderful, a claim the Supreme Court effectively nixed.
Now, it’s not entirely fair to blame one person for agricultural water use. If a thousand people owned the same total number of acres under cultivation, the aggregate amount would likely be the same. But Resnick has some villainous traits, such as suing his neighbors for trespassing because their bees pollinated his mandarin trees, causing them to sprout seeds. (No mortal can control where bees fly, so Resnick installed giant nets to keep them
off his lawn out of his orchards.)
Worse, because there is no functional aquifer under much of Resnick’s land, he’s resorted to grabbing it from elsewhere. California Sunday reports that there exists an “off-the-books pipeline that Stewart Resnick has built to keep his trees from dying. The water is being taken from unsuspecting farmers in an irrigation district in Tulare County more than 40 miles away.”
Meanwhile, he lives in a 25,000-square-foot mansion on Sunset Boulevard, more than 100 miles away. Arax’s superbly reported story is worth reading in full, as it’s bursting with jaw-dropping details such as how the Resnicks send POM to David Bowie, or that only nine men operating five machines can harvest $365 million worth of almonds in four weeks, and how the Resnicks at one time owned the Franklin Mint. As is always the case with these long-form jaw-droppers, you should read the whole thing.