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JEANNE TURNER: Why Measure Z is good for Monterey County

Aged Oil Pump on Colorado Prairie with Mountain Hills in the Background. Oil Industry Theme.Since our governor accepts large contributions from Big Oil, he is not going to support a ban on fracking in California, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo did for New York. So the group known as Protect Monterey County helped write the Measure Z initiative, on Monterey County’s Nov. 8 ballot, which is meant to accomplish that goal.

Despite the unanimous recommendation of the Monterey County Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, by a 3-2 margin, voted not to place a moratorium on fracking in the county. That left us no alternative but to create the initiative. All statements made in the initiative had to be supported by documented research before the attorneys would include them in the initiative’s language. The main reason our coalition put Measure Z on the ballot is because of the horrific water contamination taking place.

The oil production in San Ardo is done by steam injection or flooding. The steam is put down one well to loosen the viscous oil in the tar sands, and then both the oil and water are brought up through what is called a production well. What is produced along with the liquified oil is wastewater — water that went down there to liquify it the oil. It is contaminated by the chemicals in the oil and by arsenic and lead naturally occurring in the soil.

One-third of this 13.8 million gallons of water used daily is cleaned by reverse osmosis, but two-thirds of it is put into wastewater injection wells that go down into “protected” aquifers. For decades, oil companies have operated in the county with little oversight or environmental review despite the industry’s advertised claims of stringent regulation.

For example, local oil operators have been disposing of their wastewater using injection wells for many years, in violation of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. In fall 2015, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board notified six oil companies — Chevron and Aera the two largest — that 35 out of their 44 wells are illegally injecting wastewater into protected aquifers near the Salinas River. Letters were sent giving owners of these wells until February 2017 to cease use of these wells, or get exemptions from the Department of Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) — a regulatory agency that generally caves in and grants exemptions so the practice of water contamination continues. That’s why we have to stop this, and our only remaining alternative is to use the initiative process.

John Steinbeck wrote of the Salinas River being an “upside down river,” not because it flows north but because there is far more water hidden as groundwater than can be seen in the river itself. It is all the same water, fed by the underground aquifers.

It is not a matter of if but when the Salinas River groundwater will become irreversibly contaminated. As the river flows north from San Ardo it impacts agriculture and tourism, Monterey County’s top two industries, ultimately flowing out into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary where there are myriad species of sea life.

Despite all the hype in the No on Z television ads, the oil extraction companies pay only 1 percent or less of the property tax collected in Monterey County. There are fewer than 200 workers in the oil fields, most of whom are brought in from outside the area by contractors. The crude oil is put on trains that go down to L.A., where it goes out on the open market. It does not make Monterey County energy independent.

What you are hearing and seeing are scare tactics from an industry that has enjoyed the freedom to do pretty much as it wished, thanks to the Halliburton Act. Can the rest of us put dirty water into clean aquifers? No, the water we use goes through sewage treatment. Every other industry is required to clean its wastewater.

The industry will have to clean up all its contaminated water (not just the 30 percent that they clean now). Even with water cleanup, profits will remain in the billions.

Does our initiative shut down oil operations in San Ardo? No. They are allowed to continue using the over 1,500 wells in existence. No jobs will be lost because the oil companies are not serious about shutting down if Measure Z passes. The 1 percent of the county’s property tax that they pay will still be there. In fact, cleaning all their contaminated water (not just 30 percent of it, as they do now) would provide new jobs. So passing Measure Z will actually result in a net increase in jobs.

Those interested in the Yes on Z campaign can contact me or go to protectmontereycounty.org/. We now have two headquarters — one at 1340 Munras Ave., Suite 308, Monterey, and the other at 521 S. Main St., Salinas. Both are open 3 to 7:30 p.m. weekdays and 9 to 11 a.m. and 3 to 7:30 p.m. on weekends; 831-272-2084.

Jeanne Turner lives in Monterey. This piece originally appeared in the Monterey Herald.

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Aged Oil Pump on Colorado Prairie with Mountain Hills in the Background. Oil Industry Theme.You might have seen those TV ads featuring four Monterey County mayors opposed to Measure Z, the anti-fracking initiative on the November ballot. They are Joe Gunter of Salinas, Jerry Edelen of Del Rey Oaks, Fred Ledesma of Soledad and John Huerta of Greenfield. They talk about how the oil industry is good for the economy. Left unsaid is how the industry has been good for Huerta, the Greenfield mayor, whose most recent job was in the oil fields of San Ardo, the focus of Measure Z.

Until December, Huerta did grading and cement work in San Ardo for Brinderson L.P., an oil exploration and production company working under contract to Chevron. Chevron, of course, is one of the main contributors to the No on Z campaign, which contends that the measure would shut down the oil industry of Monterey County.

Huerta lost his job when Brinderson lost its Chevron deal and laid off nearly 250 employees who had been working in the oil fields of Lost Hills, Coalinga and San Ardo. But Huerta said Monday that he has applications in to other companies involved in the oil fields and is hoping something comes through.

He said his opposition to Z is not personal, that he’s proud to be one the mayors featured in the commercials, part of a $3.2 million, industry-financed campaign against the ballot measure.

“It’s a good industry,” he said. “Good jobs.”

Huerta’s occupational status has been an on-again, off-again issue in Greenfield, where he narrowly escaped a recall effort in 2012 and now faces a second attempt. Meanwhile, he has been in the news there after city officials ordered an investigation into whether he acted improperly by ordering the city manager to order the police chief not to investigate a medical marijuana operation that has been operating in the city without permits.

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Monterey County’s oil industry is one of its newest economic drivers — or the oldest.

One beginning dates to November 1947 when the Texas Co. — later to be known as Texaco and today as Chevron — discovered the San Ardo oil field five miles south of the tiny ranch town of San Ardo. The discovery well was called Lombardi 1 and by the time it began daily deliveries of 155 barrels of very thick crude, the county’s far bigger commercial mainstays — agriculture, tourism and military bases — were well established.

DSCN0585 (2)But in another way, the origin of the county’s oil industry goes back 6 million to 17 million years, give or take a few million, when the oil-bearing geologic formation that underlies much of California’s Central Coast settled into place.

This Monterey Formation is a huge swath of shale and sandstone that stretches below rolling hills from the Salinas Valley to Ventura County and inland to Kern and Fresno counties. It holds potential for more untapped oil, though estimates of just how much vary widely. But the prospect of a 21st-century oil boom reliant on controversial, water-hungry methods to extract oil from the drought-parched Coast Range has sparked a fierce and growing environmental battle over the past decade.

In Monterey County, where the oil industry has been tucked away in a faraway and nearly forgotten corner for almost 70 years, the new oil war spurred a citizens’ push to put Measure Z on the November ballot. The measure would ban fracking and other “extreme oil extraction methods,” primarily as a protection against potential contamination of groundwater needed by farms and people. It also would prohibit new oil or gas wells, and phase out wells and ponds used to dispose of wastewater from current oil and gas drilling.

Measure Z puts the county’s oil industry squarely before voters throughout Monterey County. (Here’s a link to the website operated by proponents of Measure Z, Protect Monterey County. The opposition hasn’t created a site yet.)

The Monterey Bay Partisan will be delving into the coming shootout between environmentalists and oil industry boosters, but first we look at how we got here.

San Ado Oil Fields | San Ardo, California by Drew Bird Photography

The Salinas River runs through the San Ardo oil fields. Photo by Drew Bird Photography

DISCOVERY

The story starts near the community of San Ardo, a town town of 500 residents halfway between King City and Paso Robles. That’s where miles and miles of flat Salinas Valley cropland finally give way to rugged hills more fit for grazing cattle.

The town was laid out in 1886 when the railroad arrived and needed a water stopover. After a year, its Spanish-era rancho name of San Bernardo was changed to San Ardo to avoid postal mix-ups with San Bernardino.

From the beginning, the community had closer ties with northern San Luis Obispo County and Paso Robles than it did with the Monterey County seat in Salinas 70 miles to the north. As one old-timer put it in 1980: “In Salinas, they really aren’t sure we’re part of the county.”

After World War II, when operators began tapping wells in the San Ardo oil field, those ties extended eastward over the mountains to where bigger oil-producing areas had already grown up in Fresno and Kern counties.

The Monterey Formation had been extensively mapped and studied by geologists by the 1930s. The presence of oil around San Ardo was obvious to those who’d seen crude seeping from the ground in various spots.

When early oil ventures in Paris Valley, near San Ardo and west of Highway 101, didn’t pan out, oil prospectors turned to the east side of the Salinas River a few miles south of San Ardo. They drilled the 1947 discovery well in the Lombardi pool, and found two other pools in the San Ardo field by the next year. A county use permit was issued in 1949.

Getting the heavy crude out of the ground was a problem. More than 60 wells were drilled in hopes of tapping less viscous oil, to no avail. In oil industry parlance, San Ardo was a “reluctant” field.

DSCN0575

This map from the Drilling Edge website shows most of the inactive oil wells (purple) in Monterey County. San Ardo is in the middle of the image. King City is in the upper left corner

MOVING THE OIL

The San Ardo field was largely idle for four years. But as post-war demand for gasoline and other oil products grew, General Petroleum, a West Coast affiliate of Mobil, moved in and spent $36 million to buy half of the San Ardo field to compete with Texaco.

General Petroleum’s idea was to import light oil to mix with San Ardo’s heavy crude and heat the mixture so the blended oil would flow through a pipeline. But with the Korean War going, there was a shortage of steel to build new pipeline, according to the company’s 1972 history.

General Petroleum scavenged material from an oil pipeline between Lebec and Mojave on the southeast side of the Tehachapis. That pipeline had been made obsolete, ironically, by the switch of Santa Fe freight trains from steam to diesel engines. At a factory in San Miguel, the old pipe was reconditioned and fashioned into a 40-mile line from San Ardo to an oil tanker terminal at Estero Bay between Morro Bay and Cayucos in San Luis Obispo County.

Operating oil well profiled on dramatic cloudy skyThe first barrel of San Ardo crude arrived at Estero Bay in June 1951. The ocean-tanker terminal was active until 1999. Today, San Ardo oil is hauled by trucks and southbound trains to refineries in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.

Of those early oil days in San Ardo, “Nobody was more surprised than I was that it became lucrative,” Margaret Barbree Rosenberg said in a 1980 interview for a University of California oral history project.

Rosenberg came from a pioneer San Ardo family, and the Rosenbergs, along with other pioneer families, still have some of the most productive wells in the San Ardo field on their land. Rosenburg said her family lost a little pasture from its 12,000-acre ranch, but cattle ranching and the new oil boom were an easy fit.

“Sometimes you go down there and see the cattle wandering through the oil fields,” she said.

Rosenberg said her family didn’t get extravagantly rich off its oil holdings.

“They bought more cars and things like that; but they’d always bought cars, so it really didn’t seem that different,” Rosenberg told the UC interviewer.

But the extra income helped keep ranch fences and roads maintained, and paid for costly irrigation equipment. That argument remains in vogue with South County landowners, who face the boom-or-bust cattle business, when they discuss efforts to block oil development.

BARRELS OF NUMBERS

Monterey County is the fourth-leading county of 20 California counties that produce oil.

Virtually all of it comes from the San Ardo field, which offers motorists and train passengers near the San Luis Obispo County line a few miles of scenery beamed straight out of West Texas.

Today, the San Ardo oil field ranks 41st in terms of productivity among U.S. fields, and is the 13th largest producer in California.

In 2015, 7.8 million barrels of oil were pumped from San Ardo, slightly more than 4 percent of the state’s total onshore production. Kern County alone produces three-quarters of California’s crude. Los Angeles and Ventura counties also out-produce Monterey County.

San Ardo isn’t the only oil field in Monterey County. Others discovered in South County, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s – include Lynch Canyon, McCool Ranch, Monroe Swell, Quinado Canyon and Paris Valley. They have produced little oil. The only one to yield “significant” amounts of oil besides San Ardo is the King City field, located near the hills west of Highway 101 six miles south of King City.

San_Ardo_Oil_Field_MapOver the years, wildcat exploratory wells have been drilled in Fort Ord, Laguna Seca, Seaside and the foothills above Spreckels, county planning documents say.

The group Protect Monterey County reported this year that 3,876 oil and gas wells have been sunk countywide, of which 1,108 are active. An oil industry trade publication says this year there are 551 producing wells in the San Ardo field and 3,683 wells on file.

The two big players in San Ardo are Chevron Corp. and Aera Energy LLC, which are also the two biggest oil producers in the state.

This year, Chevron has about 300 producing wells in San Ardo, a trade publication says. By contrast, Chevron has 16,000 wells in the San Joaquin Valley.

Aera Energy, a Bakersfield company formed in 1997 and owned by Shell Oil and ExxonMobil, has about 240 San Ardo wells in production. A smaller operator, Eagle Petroleum, has 22 producing wells.

A 2013 industry study said there were 190 employees in Monterey County working in oil and gas extraction, another 23 in well drilling, 126 in oil-and-gas support jobs, and two in pipeline construction.

A total oil industry work force of 1,233, the study said, included 721 employees in gas station jobs, 117 in petroleum wholesaling, 35 in natural gas distribution and 19 in fuel sales. In all, the number of oil industry jobs represented 0.8 percent of county employment. Total employee income came to $116 million.

A REALLY GOOD YEAR

In Monterey County, 1967 was a special year.

It was the Summer of Love, when performers Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin blew minds and ushered in a new era in pop music at the Monterey Pop Festival under oaks at the Monterey Fairgrounds.

At the other end of the county, San Ardo oil field workers labored on another chart-buster. Fifty new wells were drilled that year, a frenetic pace of almost one new well a week. Chevron was pumping 27,000 barrels of crude a day.

By year’s end, 1967 would go down as the most productive year in San Ardo history. The 20-year-old field yielded 18.1 million barrels from 885 producing wells, well more than double its output in 2015.

Oil and gas well profiled on sunset sky

San Ardo’s biggest years — in which annual output regularly topped 10 million barrels — began in the mid-1950s and lasted through the 1970s. It was regularly among the state’s top 10 producing oil fields.

Though it was by far the biggest, San Ardo wasn’t the only Monterey County field that produced oil in 1967. The King City field yielded about 135,000 barrels, and other fields produced crude by the hundreds and thousands of barrels, state records show.

Technology changed to keep pumping the crude. By the mid-1950s, San Ardo operators were turning to “thermal recovery” techniques, which were widely used in other California oil districts, to coax more of the extremely thick crude from the ground.

In 1957, an estimate for the “ultimate recovery” from the San Ardo field was pegged at 200 million barrels. By the mid-1970s, that estimate rose to 530 million barrels based on San Ardo’s response to “reservoir stimulation” techniques.

The thermal recovery methods to squeeze stubborn crude from the ground go by a variety of names — steam injection, steam flooding, water flooding, steam cycling, fire flooding. They all heat underground oil to make it move more easily through rock and push it toward production wells.

At a 2014 industry conference in Bakersfield, Chevron predicted “many more years of successful production” in San Ardo. Steam injection is now used throughout the field. More new technologies — 3D-modeling and horizontal drilling (where well boreholes turn to the side to follow layers of oil-bearing rock) are being employed, the company said.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Monterey County oil industry embodied by San Ardo generated little media attention, aside from occasional feature stories or “local reacts” to wild gyrations in world oil markets. The subject of oil never arose during a decade-long fight over the county general plan.

But the oil industry’s low profile vanished dramatically in recent years. Measure Z puts it front and center.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

In 2004, Chevron applied in Monterey and Fresno counties to build a 58-mile oil pipeline from San Ardo to Coalinga to connect with a major north-south pipeline on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Unknown-1The big project didn’t attract notice until two years later when Monterey County commissioned the project environmental study. Chevron wanted the pipeline so it could stop using trucks to haul San Ardo crude. The company was using 20 trucks a day, but said increased pumping could require up to 200 trucks per day.

A big increase in South County oil production appeared afoot, but public reaction remained mute. The county approved the pipeline in 2008 and subsequently renewed the permit twice. The pipeline hasn’t been built.

By 2009, the national political winds were shifting dramatically, as fracked natural gas wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado were linked to methane contamination in drinking water. A federal oil and gas lease auction in Monterey County — the first in a decade — was blocked over environmental questions about impacts on water and air quality, wildlife and greenhouse gases. Monterey County’s oil industry was no longer a forgotten cousin in a distant town. Increased scrutiny was putting it in the crosshairs of environmental politics.

It’s not the first time the oil industry has roiled county politics. In the 1980s, Congress had stopped auctions of federal oil and gas leases off the Central Coast six straight years. The issue hit the back burner with the 1992 approval of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. That put waters from San Francisco to Cambria off limits to oil rigs.

In an earlier watershed event, county residents in 1965 blocked Humble Oil Co. from building a huge oil refinery on Moss Landing wetlands. A referendum drive to reverse a county supervisors’ 3-2 vote for the refinery forced Humble pack up and go away.

What led to the present showdown? Put simply, speculation that there is a lot of untapped oil on the Central Coast.

In 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said the Monterey Formation could yield up to 15.4 billion barrels of shale oil, making it the biggest such reservoir in the country. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the common technique used to extract shale oil. Opponents say fracking threatens groundwater, increases seismic risks and uses too much water. The oil industry says it’s been safely used for years in California.

That bullish estimate for the Monterey Formation, which cast the Central Coast as the nation’s next oil capital, was dropped to 600 million barrels in 2014. Others have since put it as low as 21 million barrels, figuratively a drop in the barrel.

But a dizzying race for Monterey shale had already started. Oil operators reported inking exploration deals for tens of thousands of acres in Monterey County. Meetings on mineral rights were pitched to rural property owners. Federal auctions were readied for oil and gas rights on new blocks of land in South County.

As the shale-fracking story swelled, the pushback from environmental quarters grew.

In Monterey County, after decades of fights over pesticides, development sprawl, munitions cleanup at Fort Ord and water, the oil rush triggered new alarms.

Aged Oil Pump on Colorado Prairie with Mountain Hills in the Background. Oil Industry Theme.At first, the concerns were over risks from fracking wells; then over the compatibility of an industry that uses and pollutes great amounts of water with the water needs of Salinas Valley agriculture. The state’s five-year drought sharpened the debate.

In June 2009, local officials tried to slow the express train by delaying U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to auction mineral leases on 35,000 acres near King City and Lake San Antonio. By 2011, environmental groups were in court over BLM auction plans for land in Monterey and Fresno counties. They said the potential dangers of fracking hadn’t been analyzed. A planned 2012 BLM auction for 12,000 more acres fueled more protest.

In 2011, Denver based Ven0co Inc., which reported having leases for 300,000 acres of Monterey shale, abruptly withdrew its application for nine exploratory fracking wells near Bradley in the face of environmental pushback. The company complained to the county it had already spent $10 million.

This March, Venoco, one of biggest operators in the Monterey Formation, reported filing for financial restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy law. The company website lists two current major oil projects, both in Southern California.

By the end of 2014, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties had anti-fracking laws on the books. Several other local jurisdictions followed suit, accusing the state of dragging its feet on fracking regulations.

Attention turned to longtime oil industry practices to dispose of contaminated wastewater — injection wells and percolation ponds. There were reports of illegal wastewater dumping. And there were concerns that injection wells put aquifers at increased risk of contamination from chemicals in wastewater and fracking material.

In May 2015, environmental groups sought to stop operations of 2,500 oil wastewater wells, which they said were polluting protected aquifers. The group Protect Monterey County says there are 109 oil wastewater injection wells (44 operational) in the county, most of them near the Salinas River in the San Ardo oil field.

Without a phaseout of these disposal methods, Measure Z says, “Water contamination could have devastating impacts on agriculture, our local economy, and our water supplies.”

As the campaign heats up over Major Z in Monterey County, another oil industry battle continues to burn in San Luis Obispo County.

Phillips 66 Co. wants to expand its Santa Maria rail terminal to greatly increase oil train deliveries to its underused Nipomo refinery. Several jurisdictions along the proposed rail lines, including Monterey County, have objected.

Citing the possibility of an environmentally devastating oil-train derailment on the coastal line through Elkhorn Slough, Monterey County’s top planner wrote to San Luis Obispo County officials earlier this year.

He said Phillips 66 hasn’t looked closely enough at bringing crude to its Nipomo refinery via pipeline. And he pointed to Chevron’s long-proposed San Ardo-Coalinga pipeline as evidence “a local pipeline is feasible.”

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san-ardo-1

A portion of Aera Energy’s heavy crude operation at San Ardo, from the company website

The oil industry campaign to block the Measure Z anti-fracking initiative in Monterey County had put together a campaign treasury of $1.1 million as of June 30, and that’s without any input from local property owners who are in the oil industry or hope to be.

In the latest campaign finance filing with the county elections office, the industry group is now calling itself “Monterey County for Energy Independence – Stop the Oil and Gas Shutdown With Major Funding from Aera Energy and Chevron Corp.” MCFEISTOGWMFAECC for short.

It reports having received $300,000 from Chevron and $800,000 from Aera, the Bakersifield-based oil production company owned by Shell and Exxon Mobil.

On its website, Aera says it produced 10,200 barrels of heavy crude daily at its oil operations San Ardo. It says the oil operations, covering about seven square miles, sell oil on the premises for transport to refineries out of the area. The company says it has been producing heavy crude oil in San Ardo since 1952.

The industry group reports having spent about $440,000 so far, mostly for lobbyists and campaign strategists out of the area. Apparently heading the effort for the oil companies are two lawyers with the well-connected Nielsen Merksamer firm of San Rafael, Steven S. Lucas and Erin Lama. Lucas specializes in ballot measures and teaches election law at Stanford.

Locally, the committee reports having spent some $19,000 with the L&G law firm in Salinas, the firm formerly known as Lombardo & Gilles, which specializes in development, agriculture and marijuana law. It also reported owing $10,000 to Salinas planning consultant Maureen Wruck.

Details of Measure Z can be found at http://www.protectmontereycounty.org

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Boat house on poles in lake Tahoe, California

A weak snow pack left the piers of Lake Tahoe high and dry this summer

The lawns of the northern Sacramento suburbs are an ugly shade of tan,  sort of a dull straw color that makes the houses look shabby, even abandoned. Presumably the rest of the lawns in Sacramento look like that, too.

Some 400 miles south, many of the lawns of Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo are still green. Maybe not as green as they were last summer, but a decent green. Maybe the homeowners are watering more often than they should, or maybe it’s just that Orange County is cooler than Sacramento County.

Lake Tahoe, down a little. As of last week, it had fallen about six feet, enough to inconvenience boat owners but not enough to detract from the loveliness of the lake. The pier pilings were exposed, meaning you couldn’t motor a boat up to the dock and load up your lunch and your wakeboards. But people could still swim at the private beaches of Incline Village or the packed public beach at Sand Harbor.

Across California, San Luis Reservoir was finally down, way down to a depressing level, giving support to Big Ag’s argument that their crops will be stressed before the harvest. Grape growers are grateful that the warm weather is ripening the crop early, avoiding the need for some late-season irrigation.

I’ve driven a lot in California the last couple of weeks and seen some of the impact of the drought. The Golden State is mostly crispy at the moment, scorched around the edges. Trucks rushing along I-5 create little dust storms. Sierra meadows are dry. The skinny Salinas River is 6 inches deep at San Ardo, shallower still before King City. The mountains surrounding the Los Angeles basin look more like the mountains of Nevada. Fires are everywhere.

The composite that emerges is that California has reached its limits. We seemed to think we could build more, plant more, just keep drilling wells, but the drought is showing us that the party is over. Sure, there seems to be enough water to get by, enough water to sustain the status quo as long as our next winter is a wet one. But just enough water. If we had to, we could blast giant Lake Tahoe open on the California side and nurture some more growth for a couple more years, but we’d have to cash in quickly to cover the lawsuits from the marina owners. Pyramid Lake on the Grapevine between Bakersfield and L.A. is nearly full, so someone in Southern California has figured out how to manage the supply or how to steal enough to keep the southland relatively smug. The drought is a function of weather but its impact is a function of politics and money. We have plenty of politics but the money to create new water, it has dried up as well.

The west side of the San Joaquin Valley used to be nothing but scrub-land, hardpan and sagebrush, alkali flats. Now it is half that and half almond trees and vineyards, lush rectangles that end abruptly where the water lines stop. The vineyards of Paso Robles now stretch inland for 20 miles before they give way to the desert. Surely the owners of much of the badlands dream of drilling wells or stringing pipes to make cash bloom for them as well, but the drought is telling us that that can’t happen or at least should not.

Southern California Highway to Sierra Nevada Mountains. California Country Highway. United States

Irrigated orange trees break up the sunburned browns of Tulare County

Along Highway 46 between the oil wells of Lost Hills and the wineries of Paso Robles, hundreds of fairly new acres of almonds look strong, a deep green, but some of the trees nearest the road look like they need a drink. One island of nut trees is failing entirely, its trees as bare as they were last winter, but there is only one of those islands visible from the four-lane.

Signs lining Interstate 5 in Fresno County criticize the politicians for creating a crisis in the fields. There are signs that remind us “Water equals jobs.” A sign in Kern County says “Growing Food Wastes Water?” but the closest crop is cotton.

I don’t mean to pick on the farmers, even the it-takes-a-gallon-of-water-to-make-an-almond farmers. They, like the taxpayers who paid for the dams, have invested heavily and they should be provided enough water to bring in their crops. But the drought should be teaching us that land ownership doesn’t come with automatic planting rights. We’re maxed out. We’ve reached the limit. Just because you can drill a well and plant pistachios doesn’t mean you should. Anyone who needs more water than they were using a year ago should be looking at other ventures. Just because your farm expanded in the last decade doesn’t mean it can grow in the next. Although there are already thousands of acres of grapes in the Salinas Valley, there is room for more. Our county government would likely say there is enough water. We should trust our county government why?

The same goes for homes and businesses. They say that capitalist ventures can’t survive if they don’t grow. It is time to test that. Yes, I’d hate to be a homebuilder or a carpenter now that California has reached its limits, but we’re out of water. If you build those 200 houses, another 200 already here will go without someday or they’ll have to pay a company like Cal Am ridiculous amounts to go through the motions to make some more.

Some say we need to build more dams to trap the water that rushes out to sea, “wasted.” Maybe we should have a few decades ago, but it’s too late now. Sacramento may declare an emergency to suspend the environmental rules but Washington isn’t going to go along. If we start planning dam projects now, we’ll start approving construction projects based on future water that may never become available. What makes sense is to improve the existing infrastructure. We can manage what we have better but I’m not going to pay big bucks so that someone in Wasco can plant walnuts or subdivisions and neither are you.

Closer to home, why are we still talking about Monterey Downs, the big horse-racing and housing compound planned for Fort Ord? If there is enough “extra” water in the ground for that project, great. There isn’t, but if there was, we could use it now to keep the hotels running and to take some of the pressure off the nearly defeated Carmel River. We don’t have enough water for our current needs so we’re going to say yes to making things worse for ourselves?

Next to the water-related signs along the inland highways are signs proclaiming “100 acres zoned commercial.” Give me a break. Drive into the next town and you’ll find hundreds of acres zoned commercial, some of it vacant, most of it dusty. I’ve got nothing against business. I’ve got something against nonsense.

California always was the land of promise, of potential, of possibilities. We believed the promises and exploited the potential. We have made great use of the possibilities, but we have done enough. There are other lands of promise and possibilities and some of them have water. We have created something special here, and we have, for the most part, finished it. Now it is time to take care of what we have.

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