As far back as the 1930s, a Hollywood sweet-talker named Charlie Boyd began lining up swampland in old Tulare Lake and selling it to working-class dreamers as the next great oil rush.
A handful of families held on to their piece of the San Joaquin Valley through the generations, either too stubborn to admit they had been fleeced or still convinced that the dry lake bottom held untold riches.
Norma Rulison’s tiny parcel is all but worthless. For years, she lived far away and rarely visited the land. Arco and Texaco came and went and found nothing. But she never forgot her grandmother’s last words of wisdom: “You keep that land, you hear. As soon as you let it go, they’re going to discover a gusher.”
During a recent trip to this desolate cotton country along Interstate 5 in Kings County, Rulison discovered that a strange liquid has indeed transformed her land. Black gold, it isn’t.
She is among a handful of small landowners distressed to find that one of the kings of California agriculture, Westlake Farms, has seized their tiny parcels and turned the land into a huge pond filled with smelly, toxic farm runoff.
The small guys are now mounting a legal battle against cotton giant Ceil Howe, owner of Westlake Farms, to halt what they see as trespassing and force him to pay compensation.
“I didn’t know what it was at first,” said the 55-year-old Rulison. “All I knew was that it looked like filthy sludge water and it stunk to high heaven, and there were strange insects flying all over the place.
“All I could think of was: My gosh, this is an environmental nightmare.”
Howe’s attorney, Dan Dooley, acknowledges that Westlake Farms appropriated 21 acres belonging to Rulison and other out-of-town landowners to build a 740-acre drainage pond. But even before the pond was built in the mid-1980s, Dooley said, Howe grew cotton and grain on the land for several decades.
He contends that the property owners have effectively relinquished control of their land by failing to challenge Westlake’s lengthy possession and use.
“These are tiny islands of land that don’t even come up on the radar screen, and Westlake has been managing and farming them for literally decades,” Dooley said.
This small war in the middle of nowhere underscores years of acrimony and legal battles over the large evaporation ponds that dot the farming landscape of three San Joaquin Valley counties.
Farmers say the ponds allow them to drain toxic concentrations of selenium and salts that bubble up on their land--a byproduct of irrigated agriculture here. Without the ponds or some permanent drainage system connected to the ocean, farmers say, America would lose one of its most productive cotton and grain growing regions.
Environmentalists and biologists counter that the ponds are killing migratory birds in a most cruel way. From the birds’ vantage, the ponds appear to be a benign vestige of Tulare Lake, once the second-largest lake in America before farmers began choking off the flow of its four main rivers.
Unbeknownst to the grebes and American avocets and black-necked stilts that nest there, the ponds hide a deadly brew that is killing their offspring and causes grotesque deformities, state and federal biologists have found.
What’s so different and controversial about the drainage pond managed by Westlake Farms is that part of the basin was carved out of land belonging to others.
Rulison said she was never consulted about the takeover of her land, much less compensated. She and two dozen other small landowners filed a lawsuit in December in Sacramento County Superior Court alleging that Howe trespassed and then converted their land into a “hazardous waste site.”
Also named as a defendant is the California Water Resources Control Board, for failing to consider landownership records before issuing a discharge permit to Howe.
“Westlake Farms has 55,000 acres of their own land. Why can’t they use their own land for their own dump,” said Richard Harriman, a lawyer representing Rulison and the other small landowners.
“This case shows the arrogance of large corporate farmers and the unwillingness of state agencies to regulate them even in the face of incontrovertible evidence of trespassing.”
Citing a long history of use, Westlake Farms believes it has a rightful claim to the property through two legal doctrines, including so-called “adverse possession.”
“Ceil Howe is willing to sit down and work something out with these folks, but their attorney won’t even respond to us,” Dooley said. “Westlake doesn’t intend to be unreasonable about this even though we’ve got a strong legal case.”
Rulison disputes that Westlake ever farmed her land, saying her visits to the area in the 1970s and ‘80s always showed the ground to be fallow.
Harriman says Westlake Farms has never established rightful possession or use in the eyes of the law. For one, he said, the farming giant has never paid a dollar of tax on the 21 acres. Also, his clients were approached by Westlake in years past to sell the land and they refused.
When it came time last year for the state to renew Westlake’s permit to operate the pond, regulators decided not to investigate or consider landownership.
The state agency that monitors the ponds says that Howe has done more than any other farmer to lessen the environmental impact. But Howe’s opponents say that is beside the point.
“My name’s on the deed of trust and I pay the taxes, and I don’t remember giving anyone permission to turn my land into a cesspool,” Rulison said.