A California water fight pits pistachio growers against the U.S. Navy

A legal dispute over water rights in California’s Mojave desert has growers for The Wonderful Co. on one side and a town reliant on a sprawling naval base on the other. As Brent Crane reports in FERN’s latest story, published with Bloomberg Green, the case offers a glimpse of the coming water wars in California, as the state’s all-powerful agriculture interests increasingly square off against thirsty communities over a dwindling supply of fresh water.

Since 2011, Mojave Pistachios LLC, which sells most of its nuts to the Wonderful Co., one of America’s most powerful agricultural enterprises, has established a farming operation on a scale unprecedented for Indian Wells Valley. “If they’re well-tended, its trees will be fully mature by 2025, turning the once-barren land into a fertile realm worth an estimated $25 million a year,” Crane writes.

“That’s a bigger ‘if’ than it might seem. In the arid, isolated [valley], underground aquifers are the only reliable sources of fresh water. To make its trees grow big and strong, Mojave says, it will need almost as much groundwater as the entire [town of] Ridgecrest area uses today.”

Ridgecrest really only exists as a company town for the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, an arms-testing base built nearby during World War II. “The naval base now encompasses 1.1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island … The base contributes $36 million in state and local taxes each year, representing about 90 percent of the town’s economy. In 2019, China Lake said one of its top concerns was encroachment on its groundwater supply, based on a recent assessment of the aquifer’s use, and implied that water shortages could mean the base would have to shut down permanently.

“Local officials have taken steps to assuage the Navy. The government of Kern County, where Ridgecrest is located, banned new development of farmland in the valley in 2015 … This past September, Ridgecrest announced that, as part of a groundwater sustainability plan set to take effect in January in compliance with state law, all farmers would have to pay costly new fees to pump water from the Indian Wells Valley basin. The idea is to offset the expense of importing sufficient water for the area’s future needs.”

Since then, growers large and small have joined against the valley’s groundwater regulator.