Newsom Asks Urban Users to Voluntarily Reduce Water Use As Nut Growers Suck Up Water

Photograph Source: Steve Jurvetson – CC BY 2.0

Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director of the San Francisco Baykeeper, believes that “it’s nuts” to ask California’s urban water users to voluntarily reduce water use while allowing almond, walnut, and pistachio growers to use large amounts of water – enough to flood all of Rhode Island and Delaware to waist-deep – during a record drought.

On July 15, Governor Gavin Newsom added nine counties to the regional drought state of emergency and urged Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15 percent “with simple measures” to protect water reserves if drought conditions continue.

“The realities of climate change are nowhere more apparent than in the increasingly frequent and severe drought challenges we face in the West and their devastating impacts on our communities, businesses and ecosystems,” said Governor Newsom.

The Governor signed an Executive Order calling on all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15 percent compared to 2020 levels through “simple actions such as reducing landscape irrigation, running dishwashers and washing machines only when full, finding and fixing leaks, installing water-efficient showerheads and taking shorter showers.”

State officials estimate an additional 15 percent voluntary reduction by urban water users from 2020 levels could save as much as 850,000 acre-feet of water over the next year for future use, or enough to supply more than 1.7 million households for a year, according to the Governor’s Office.

Unfortunately, what the Governor failed to mention when calling for an additional 15 percent voluntary reduction by urban water users is that the state’s almond, walnut, and pistachio orchards suck up more water than all of us combined, according to Choksi-Chugh.

“It would be laughable, except that I’m crying,” said Choksi-Chugh in an action alert on September 30. “These industrial nut farms—more than 2 million acres of them—are getting enough water during the drought to produce a near-record crop, mostly for export.”

“Meanwhile, to grow these nuts, we divert way too much fresh water flowing from our rivers and Delta. As a result, six fish species in San Francisco Bay are nearing extinction, the Delta is being choked with toxic algae, and communities are being deprived of clean drinking water,” she noted.

“It’s nuts not to prepare for drought in California. Our state has dry years—often extremely dry—and with climate change, things will only get worse,” she stated.

“We expect our elected leaders to know that, and to take the measures necessary to protect the people and wildlife of California instead of propping up unsustainable agribusiness. That’s why it’s so frustrating when governor after governor ignores the historic realities of California’s climate and the ongoing decline in the water quality of our rivers and Bay—and Governor Newsom doesn’t get a free pass just because he survived a recall,” she stated.

Choksi-Chugh added, “Governor Newsom is giving water handouts to California’s industrial agriculture at the expense of a healthy San Francisco Bay and the people who depend on it. What’s worse, he’s using bad science from the Trump era to justify it. Water-intensive crops like almonds, walnuts, and pistachios get irrigated while toxic algae fills the Bay’s tributaries and salmon die. This puts Bay Area residents and our local fishing businesses in peril, while leaving vulnerable communities without safe and affordable drinking water.”

She said the State Water Board has developed a plan, “based on actual science,” that would require increased river flows into the Bay and require both industry and cities to use water sustainably. But she said Governor Newsom has actively blocked this science-based plan.

Choksi-Chugh urged Californians to watch the group’s new video to find out more—made in partnership with NRDC — and then to sign the petition urging the Governor to “face reality.”Tell Governor Newsom to reject Trump-era “science” and say no to greed.

The reason why “way too much fresh water” is diverted from our rivers and Delta to irrigate California nut orchards during a drought   to grow nut crops — enough to flood all of Rhode Island and Delaware to waist deep — is because of regulatory capture by corporate agribusiness.

Stewart and Lynda Resnick, billionaire agribusiness tycoons and major promoters of the Delta Tunnel and increased water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, are the largest orchard fruit and nut growers in the world. They have donated a total of $366,800 to Governor Gavin Newsom since 2018, including $250,000 to the campaign to fight the Governor’s recall.

These latest donations are not the only agribusiness donations given to Newsom’s campaigns by the Resnicks since 2018. Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in the 2018 election cycle, based on the data from That figure includes a combined $116,800 from Stewart and Lynda Resnick and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo, combined with $579,998 in the agriculture donations category.

Nicknamed “the Koch Brothers of California” by activists, the Resnicks have contributed many millions of dollars to candidates from both sides of the political aisle and to proposition campaigns so they can continue selling back public water to the public at a huge profit while promoting legislation and other efforts to weaken laws protecting fish, wildlife and water.

The Resnicks have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to not only Newsom, but to Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other governors in California.

In November 2018, the Resnicks’ Wonderful Orchards LLC donated $100,000 to Jerry Meral’s unsuccessful Proposition 3 water bond campaign that would have funded projects to benefit the Resnicks and other growers.

The Resnicks also contributed $150,000 to Governor Jerry Brown’s Proposition 1 water bond campaign in the fall of 2014. To read about how Brown broke his Prop 1 “promise” to not spend any water bond money on the Delta Tunnels, read my East Bay Express article:…

The Resnicks have also donated many hundreds of millions of dollars throughout their Resnick Family Foundation to the University of California system and the arts in California.

In September of 2019, the Resnicks announced a $750 million pledge to Caltech to “support cutting-edge research into the most pressing challenges in environmental sustainability.”

The couple own the POM Wonderful and Fiji Water brands, Wonderful Halos, Wonderful Pistachios and Almonds, JUSTIN Wines, Landmark Wines, JNSQ Wines, Suterra Pest Control and the Teleflora floral wire service company.

The Resnicks became notorious for buying water for as little as $28 per acre-foot from the State of California and then selling it for as much as $196 per acre-foot back to the state, according to an article by the late Mike Taugher in the Contra Costa Times on May 23, 2009. The state then used this water to supply other irrigators whose Delta water supply had been previously curtailed.

“As the West Coast’s largest estuary plunged to the brink of collapse from 2000 to 2007, state water officials pumped unprecedented amounts of water out of the Delta only to effectively buy some of it back at taxpayer expense for a failed environmental protection plan, a MediaNews investigation has found,” according to Taugher. (…)

The couple’s huge agricultural operations, based in Kern County, use more water annually than every home in Los Angeles combined, according to an article by Josh Harkinson in Mother Jones magazine on August 9, 2016:…

The latest donations from the Resnicks came in the wake of the news that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found zero Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), once the most abundant fish species in the estuary, in its 2020 Fall Midwater Trawl Survey throughout the Delta. This was the third year in a row that zero smelt were found in the survey.

“All signs point to the Delta smelt as disappearing from the wild this year, or, perhaps, 2022,” according to a California Water Blog post by Peter Moyle, Karrigan Börk, John Durand, T-C Hung and Andrew L. Rypel. “In case you had forgotten, the Delta smelt is an attractive, translucent little fish that eats plankton, has a one-year life cycle, and smells like cucumbers.”

Not only did the survey catch zero Delta Smelt, but it also found zero Sacramento Splittail, a native minnow that was removed from the Endangered Species list by the Bush administration.

The zero Delta Smelt and Sacramento Splittail found in the survey reflect an ongoing collapse of pelagic (open water) fish species in the Delta that also includes Longfin Smelt, Striped Bass, Threadfin shad and American Shad. While there are several factors that scientists pinpoint for the ecosystem collapse, including toxic chemicals, decreasing water quality and invasive species, no factor figures greater in the collapse than the export of massive quantities of state and federal project water from the Delta to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests like the Resnicks and the Westlands Water District.

As the Delta smelt and other fish species move closer and closer to extinction in the wild, Governor Newsom, like California governors before him, has done little to stop the smelt’s slide towards extinction, but has instead promoted water policies that will only hasten the extinction of the Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Central Valley steelhead, spring and winter-run Chinook salmon and other fish species.

The Delta Tunnel, Sites Reservoir and voluntary agreements that Newsom backs not only threaten Central Valley and Delta species, but the salmon and steelhead populations that have been an integral part of the culture of the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk and other Tribes for thousands of years.

Could Newsom’s support of Big Ag-promoted projects be because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Newsom has received from corporate agribusiness interests like the Resnicks that support increasing water exports from the Delta rather than decreasing them?

By fast-tracking the Delta Tunnel, supporting the Big Ag-backed voluntary water agreements, overseeing the issuing of a draft EIR that increases water exports for the state and federal projects rather than reducing them and releasing a controversial water portfolio that includes fast-tracking the Sites Reservoir, it appears that Newsom is bending to the will of his agribusiness donors and sending Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and other fish species to the scaffold.

The dramatic decline of Delta smelt and other species, when viewed over the period of 53 years since 1967 when the State Water Project went into operation, is simply chilling.

Between 1967 and 2020, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl (FMWT) abundance indices (combined September, October, November and December surveys) for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95 percent, respectively, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).

“Taken as five-year averages (1967-1971 vs. 2016-2020), the declines for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad are 98.1, 99.8, 99.8, 26.2, 99.3 and 94.3 percent, respectively,” said Jennings.

The CDFW’s Fall Midwater Trawl Survey for 2021 began on September 1 in the Delta.

Will zero Delta smelt be found in the survey like has been the case over the past 3 years? How will other Delta pelagic species fare in this year’s survey? Will the Delta smelt become declared extinct in the wild this year or next, as Dr. Peter Moyle and other scientists fear?

Stay tuned – I plan to report on the survey results every month as soon as the results are posted online and then I will do a wrap-up article after the full survey results are released, probably in late December or early January.


Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher