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How a Tiny Farm County Became Ground Zero in California's Fracking Fight

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Every morning, just after breakfast, Joe Morris heads out to check the water for his herd of 130 pasture-raised cattle. This year, thanks to California's extreme drought, the creeks on his property have run dry.

"A herd of cattle without water is not a pretty sight," says Morris, a rancher who has practiced holistic management of the water and soil on his family's San Juan Bautista ranch since 1991.

Morris Grassfed Beef is part of a large network of organic ranches, farms, and vineyards in San Benito County, a rural enclave just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, where farming is a way of life. Earthbound Farms, the largest industrial grower of organic produce in the U.S. is located here, along with dozens of smaller operations that produce much of the local meat, vegetables, and fruit relied upon by chefs and restaurants in nearby urban areas. All these farms rely on water, but the drought isn't their only concern. Farmers and ranchers like Morris also worry that the area's precious water might go toward hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" in the county.

As one of two counties with fracking bans on the local ballot this November, San Benito County has also become the site of a heated political battle between oil companies and anti-fracking ranchers, farmers, and residents. A similar fight is going down in Santa Barbara County, where oil companies have funneled $7.6 million into a campaign against Measure P, a citizen's ballot initiative that would ban future high-intensity petroleum operations on unincorporated county land.

Earlier this month, actor and well-known "fracktivist" Mark Ruffalo tweeted: "Hollister (the county seat) is ground zero in the California fracking fight." And while famous actors aren't always considered the best source for real talk on climate legislation, Ruffalo is right.    

Earlier this month, actor and well-known "fracktivist" Mark Ruffalo tweeted: "Hollister (the county seat) is ground zero in the California fracking fight." And while famous actors aren't always considered the best source for real talk on climate legislation, Ruffalo is right.

Last spring, more than 4,000 local voters signed a petition for a citizen's initiative that would ban all high-intensity petroleum operations throughout the county. Citing a desire to protect the quantity and quality of groundwater reserves as well as the "health, safety, welfare, and quality of life of county residents," Measure J ultimately aims to preserve the rural character of a place where 80 percent of unincorporated land is used for rangeland or agricultural operations worth $330 million. In May 2014, county supervisors approved the measure for the November ballot. With that, San Benito became the first county in California where voters get a chance to decide on the future of oil where they live.