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Meet Stewart Resnick, Corporate Farming Billionaire and One-Man Environmental Wrecking Crew

Thanks to his generous relationship with Dianne Feinstein, a corporate farmer is successfully crusading against environmental preservation in California.

Wealthy corporate farmer Stewart Resnick has written check after check to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s political campaigns. He’s hosted a party in her honor at his Beverly Hills mansion, and he’s entertained her at his second home in Aspen.

And in September, when Resnick asked Feinstein to weigh in on the side of agribusiness in a drought-fueled environmental dispute over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, this wealthy grower and political donor got quick results, documents show.

On Sept. 4, Resnick wrote to Feinstein, complaining that the latest federal plan to rescue the Delta’s endangered salmon and shad fisheries was "exacerbating the state’s severe drought" because it cut back on water available to irrigate crops. "Sloppy science" by federal wildlife agencies had led to "regulatory-induced water shortages," he claimed.

"I really appreciate your involvement in this issue," he wrote to Feinstein.

One week later, Feinstein forwarded Resnick’s letter to two U.S. Cabinet secretaries. In her own letter, she urged the administration to spend $750,000 for a sweeping re-examination of the science behind the entire Delta environmental protection plan.

The Obama administration quickly agreed, authorizing another review of whether restrictions on pumping irrigation water were necessary to save the Delta’s fish. The results could delay or change the course of the protection effort.

To environmentalists concerned with protecting the Delta, it was a dispiriting display of the political clout wielded by Resnick, who is among California’s biggest growers and among its biggest political donors.

Resnick’s Paramount Farms owns 118,000 acres of heavily irrigated California orchards. And since he began buying farmland 25 years ago, Resnick, his wife, and executives of his companies have donated $3.97 million to candidates and political committees, mostly in the Golden State, a California Watch review of public records shows.

They have given $29,000 to Feinstein and $246,000 more to Democratic political committees during years when she has sought re-election.

"It is very disappointing that one person can make this kind of request, and all of a sudden he has a senator on the phone, calling up (U.S. Interior Secretary Ken) Salazar," says Jim Metropulos, senior advocate for the Sierra Club.

Feinstein’s letter was "based on what she believes to be the best policy for California and the nation," spokesman Gil Duran said in a statement. "No other factors play a role in her decisions."

With the Valley’s economy battered by recession and drought, Feinstein believed it was important to reconsider the restrictions on pumping Delta water for irrigation, he said. Many farmers have urged such a review, he added.

In an interview, Resnick said he didn’t leverage his relationship with Feinstein to persuade her to intervene.

"Honestly, I’m not saying we could not have done that, but I don’t think that’s the way it happened," he said. Feinstein long has had an interest in water issues, and "she just wanted to get to the bottom of this," Resnick said.

A Troubled Estuary
The Delta provides drinking water for 20 million people and irrigation for the state’s vast agriculture industry. But after decades of water diversions, Delta fish populations are in catastrophic decline, scientists say.

Prodded by lawsuits from environmentalists, federal wildlife agencies commissioned scientific studies of the Delta’s ecological crisis. Based on the studies, the agencies launched a restoration program that curtailed pumping for irrigation and increased water flows for migrating fish.

Meanwhile three years of drought have forced big cuts in water allotments for farmers, and swaths of valley farmland lie fallow. The recession pushed the unemployment rate in some valley towns to 40 percent.

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