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Bankers vs. Fish, a Cautionary Tale

by Laura Waldbaum

A few years ago the banking industry, lead by giants Lehman, Goldman Sachs and others convinced regulators that the old rules didn’t matter and that many of the regulations in place to protect the public were irrelevant and should be repealed. Politicians and a gullible public, not wanting to be left behind by the “get rich quick” gravy train, eagerly hopped on board.

Today as the country struggles with the aftermath of the financial disaster that resulted from greedy bankers who manipulated the system, it’s hard to fathom how we ever fell for their Ponzi scheme in the first place.

Mortgages where the loan payments are less than the interest amount? Loans for more than the property’s value? Loaning money to people who had no records proving they could even afford the payments? These things all seem ridiculous to us now, yet we drank the Kool-Aid and bought the story the bankers told us because we wanted to believe it was true.

These same people are at it again, only this time instead of stealing our money, they are attempting to take something even more precious. Henry Cornell, of Goldman Sachs, is using the same type of smoke and mirrors tactics to convince regulators and Sonoma County planners that up is down and black is white, while he steals from all of Sonoma County a public trust resource, the water and habitat in Mark West Creek. This effort, ongoing since 2005, is about to return to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for their approval.

He has created quite a sales pitch. According to Cornell consultants his Winery project will benefit the watershed by “reducing demand from local aquifers”. How could we not like a project which will “create more water” for the watershed. Folks, really, if Henry Cornell has actually found a way to create water, he should get out of the banking industry. He could make a lot more money “creating water”, the most precious resource on the planet.

What he has really created is an elaborate ruse; a way to tell regulators that they do not need to enforce current regulations that would make him prove he has adequate water for his project. He will be adding water to the watershed because he says he will, and of course we can trust him because the numbers are all right there in the reports. There is no need for him to do the aquifer drawdown test, he says, he should be exempt!

Let’s take off the spin and look at the numbers for a minute. First of all, and most importantly, all of the water he discusses in the report is imaginary future water; much like the future appreciation in the housing market that the bankers told us would take care of any present discrepancies in the processing of the risky mortgages. We all know where that got us.

He is making the case that in the future a house will be taken offline which will provide a substantial water savings. The reality is that house is already “offline” and has been for many, many years. There has NEVER been a 5 bedroom house there, and if such a house were proposed to be developed it would be REQUIRED by Sonoma County to prove adequate water supply. Riparian rights to the already FULLY APPROPRIATED Mark West Creek would be subject to compliance with a very complicated set of laws designed to protect not only senior water rights holders but the public trust resource as well. The removal of the house will not result in any reduction in current water use, period. While it is theoretically possible that a 5 bedroom house could be built there it is also just as possible that no house would be built there and some conservation minded individual could buy the property and deed it to open space as has happened with numerous neighboring parcels. Furthermore, assuming for a moment there were an occupied 5 bedroom home built on the parcel, any water used by the home would be used in small amounts consistently throughout the year and would re-enter the aquifer consistently as purified septic effluent. No water would be permanently exported from the aquifer.

The report also claims that a substantial amount of theoretical water will be saved by not planting a vineyard on this parcel. Again there has NEVER been a vineyard on that parcel so there is no reduction in current water use. Even Henry Cornell’s consultants admit that the vast majority of the parcel in question is not suitable for vineyard. Certainly, it seems unlikely that a parcel mostly unsuited for vineyard would be purchased by anyone who wanted to develop a vineyard, when other more suitable parcels are abundant. Henry Cornell has over 100 acres of land surrounding the proposed winery site, with the majority in forest still awaiting conversion once the winery is approved. Giving up planting rights on a tiny parcel of unsuitable vineyard land is not a water savings, it is simply a smokescreen to dodge compliance with the County mandated testing for water scarce areas.

Logic dictates that if not planting a vineyard or not building a 5 bedroom house should be considered to be a benefit to the watershed, the inescapable conclusion is that not building the winery complex would provide the same benefit.

Once all the shiny wrapping paper has been removed from the package Cornell has handed us we are left with the same lump of coal we had when the project was first proposed seven years ago. No where do we hear how much water Henry Cornell is using on his existing vineyard. There is no comparison between how much water he is using now, how much MORE water he will be using, and how this ADDITIONAL use will impact the aquifer and springs that feed Mark West Creek. The only thing we do know is that ever since Henry Cornell planted his first vines, the water in Mark West Creek has been decreasing. This year despite the fact that we had an abundant water year, sections of Upper Mark West Creek near the vineyard and proposed winery stopped flowing for the first time and Steelhead were stranded and died.

Let’s not give Goldman Sachs executive Henry Cornell another chance to play outside the rules. Let’s prove we have learned not to blindly swallow everything the bankers tell us. The only thing that really matters here, is that before we decide to allow another water intensive project in the already development impaired Mark West Creek headwaters, we need to insist that the developer do the required tests to prove the proposed development will not harm the creek.

Its time to level the playing field and tell Cornell the rules apply to everyone, even him.

For more information on the proposed Cornell Winery project go to www.nowwe.org