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New Documentary Explores ‘Water and Power’ in California

A new documentary “Water & Power: A California Heist” airing on the National Geographic Channel explores the influence of money in California water and why backroom deals of the past may be a harbinger of things to come.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A still from the film “Water & Power: A California Heist” shows a pipeline allegedly owned by Stewart Resnick bringing water from Dudley Ridge to Lost Hills.National Geographic/Ted Gesing

Director Marina Zenovich refers to her new film as “Chinatown,” the documentary. The filmmaker’s latest work “Water & Power: A California Heist” shines the spotlight on modern-day water barons in California’s San Joaquin Valley and the backroom deals that have helped pad their pockets.

Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of the Wonderful Company, feature prominently, as does the Kern County Water Bank they partially control, and the Monterey Amendments, which helped make that possible.

In the film, lush orchards are juxtaposed with local residents whose taps have run dry, as the film explores the impacts of California’s drought and the valley’s groundwater crisis. It also zeros in on business interests looking for lucrative groundwater in other parts of the state.

“Water & Power,” produced by Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will air on the National Geographic Channel in 171 countries on March 14 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Water Deeply recently spoke with Zenovich, who is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, and Adam Keats, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, who is featured in the film.

Water Deeply: Marina, why did you decide to make this film?

Marina Zenovich: After I finished my film “Fantastic Lies,” I was trying to figure out what to do next and a friend and a mentor said, “Would you be interested in making a movie about the politics of water in California?”

I’m from the Central Valley, and my father was a legislator for many years in the 1960s through the 1980s, and I’ve made films about Roman Polanski, and I love “Chinatown” – it’s my favorite movie of all time, so I jumped, because not only did I have a personal connection to it but I saw it was becoming a bigger and bigger issue and wanted to learn about it.

Water Deeply: The film goes into a lot of detail about the Resnicks, a wealthy couple who own the Wonderful Company, including Paramount Farms in Lost Hills. Why the decision to focus on them?

Zenovich: Well, it was more about the Monterey Amendments to me and in telling that story you had to tell the story of the purchase of it, and the back story [which involves the Resnicks]. With the Monterey Amendments there was this backroom deal where people didn’t know about it, and it ended up affecting how some people became these kind of water oligarchs.

Water Deeply: Adam, can you give some background on the Monterey Amendments and their significance in California water?

Adam Keats: In a very broad stroke, the Monterey Amendments shifted control of the State Water Project from state control to the [water] contractors’ control. The contractors run the State Water Project essentially now, and by contractors, we’re talking about the different water agencies and water districts that contract to get the water from the system.

Because a good solid half of the contractors are large-scale agribusiness interests, you have an effect of it being a much more privately oriented and for-profit-oriented management of the system.

Water Deeply: How do the Resnicks end up being the big beneficiaries of this?

The Resnicks have a very interesting story. They were diversified, they’re capitalists, they were out buying businesses and building businesses and doing different things. I think it’s in the movie, there’s a line where they say, “Well, we were just looking for a place to park some money” and they got into some landholding in the Central Valley.

Stuart and Lynda said, “Well, if we could somehow get more control of the water, and get more regular control of the water, we could make more money on this land,” and they did! They got involved in the Monterey Amendments very early; their fingerprints are all over it. And when it came down to how the Monterey Amendments would divide the spoils, they received one of the biggest spoils of all, which was control of the Kern Water Bank. They own 48 percent of it outright, and through water districts, they control another 10–15 percent of it.

So they have upward of around 60 percent control of probably the most important water infrastructure outside of maybe Shasta Dam and Lake Oroville. This is a massive, massive golden goose.

Water Deeply: The film talks about the litigation work that you are involved in over the Monterey Amendments. What is your goal there?

Keats: We are absolutely focused on, and believe we can achieve, the return of the Kern Water Bank to the State of California, to the ownership of the entire state, to take it out of the hands of the Resnicks. We want to reverse the destructive Monterey Amendments that shifted from the firm-yield or safe-yield system to this variable-yield system. We want to deprivatize the State Water Project, and we want to return the resources to public control and public ownership.

Water Deeply: Is this something that can be done through litigation, or do there need to be public policy changes and public education?

Keats: I think public policy and public education are going to be incredibly important, but absolutely this can be done through litigation. The law is on our side. The question of whether or not the Monterey Amendments and the transfer of the Kern Water Bank were constitutional or not, or whether they broke the law or not, has never been addressed by a court.

Water Deeply: The film talks about a growing concern about big companies buying up land in Paso Robles with the likely intention of securing lucrative groundwater. What’s the big picture there?

A still from the film “Water & Power: A California Heist” shows attorney Adam Keats investigating groundwater withdrawals in Paso Robles, California. (National Geographic Channels/Ted Gesing)

Keats: Paso is the next frontier for the effort to privatize – to repeat what they accomplished in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. Yes, they are buying up land for agriculture, but the land was already agriculture, most of it. What they’re doing is shifting the agriculture over to a different type of agriculture that’s more water-intensive, and requires a more permanent supply of water – in this case wine grapes.

But they’re also buying this land at very high prices in strategic locations that are good for potential water banking. They’re setting up infrastructure that appears very strongly to us as being a mechanism to facilitate the infrastructure for a water marketplace.

In the environmental community we know who loses with that. The environment loses, absolutely. Family farms lose; local non-politically connected residents lose. So we’re fighting in Paso before it starts, before it happens. Kern is a lost cause; they already own the water down there. They’ve already got it all, but we can stop them in Paso.

Water Deeply: Marina, tell me a little bit about the process of making this film for you? What were some of the challenges? It seems like this was an incredibly complex issue, and you have to put a human face on it, and also paint the picture of how this is affecting a pretty big region.

Zenovich: Yeah, it was difficult. We knew that the Monterey Amendments were kind of the center of it, and then when we found the Paso story, it’s kind of like the next Monterey Amendments that Adam talks about, which is so fascinating.

We showed the history, which was very interesting to me, but the human face on it is the people who are suffering, and it’s not hard to find those people! We tried as much as we could to show how we got here, told by as many players who would talk to us as possible.

The overall theme is greed! It’s astounding, it’s just astounding to me! Are we just going to rape the land, and screw the people, just so we can fill our pockets? It’s just so wrong!

Water Deeply: What do each of you hope that people do after they’ve seen this movie?

Keats: Number one, it’s being aware of where your water comes from and developing an opinion about who should be controlling water, who should be using it. It’s a limited resource; how should we distribute it? And recognize that that’s a political decision; it’s not an economic decision.

There are a lot of active, current fights that people can get engaged in, and it’s the locals who need to be fighting those battles. More than anybody else, they’re the ones that have the knowledge and the ability and the energy to be dealing with these things.

For the most part, nobody has any interest in getting involved in the [water] committees, the boards and agencies, but regular people can be. There are multiple different places where people have gotten involved on a local level and are influencing these decisions in a really positive way.

I think that people need to start getting involved, and not just leaving it to those that have a financial interest.

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