The Westlands Water District held its board of directors meeting Tuesday, April 20, 2021 remotely by Zoom from its Fresno headquarters. While waiting I accidently heard Apple News on my phone (didn’t know there was such a thing.) There was a report that some folks calling themselves enviros are trying to get the International Criminal Court to include “ecocide” as part of its jurisdiction. I went to the ICC website https://www.icc-cpi.int/ It tries individuals charged with four classes of offense: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.. So what does this tell us? That some people, even if they are well meaning, conflate their vision of the environment with literally crimes against humanity. I’ll just say it – their priorities are out of whack. The suffering of a child at the hands of a marauder isn’t the same as an oil spill. If you don’t understand that you shouldn’t be putting forth law. I propose bringing about the greatest amount of positive change rests with us taking care of our families, friends and neighbors, loving our brothers and sisters. We can do more than any government entity by being kind.
Chairman Daniel Errotabere called the meeting to order at 1:00pm on the dot. The agenda was tweaked a bit by moving the agenda item appointing a new representative to the Central Valley Project Water Association Board. WWD is a member of CVPWA and chose a representative.
A New President
Next Errotabere announced he’s resigning as President of Westlands. Director Todd Neves thanked him for his service. I don’t know the reason behind this resignation but we can be sure it wasn’t a frivolous decision. The Board was unanimous in its praise for Errotabere. Both Directors William Bourdeau and Ryan Ferguson were willing to take the seat. General Manager Tom Birmingham said he understands Errotabere has both business and personal needs that will prevent him from completing his term. Both Bourdeau and Ferguson were nominated. Director Frank Coelho Jr. moved to nominate Ferguson, seconded by Neves. Director Kevin Assemi nominated Bourdeau and was asked to make the motion as an amendment to Coelho’s motion. Director Jim Anderson seconded that motion. Coelho wouldn’t agree to this and Errotabere wanted the vote for Ferguson to be first. Public comment was opened up and WWD grower Jon Reiter added his thanks to Errotabere for his service. He said Ferguson has been good in his position and if elected will garner deserving support throughout the district. Reiter reminded everyone Bourdeau has been a leader and aggressive in public outreach to help clarify the district’s and ag in general’s needs. Peter Elgorriaga spoke up saying he support Bourdeau. Jeremey Hughes is a grower from Cantua Creek and was critical of WWD’s handling of SGMA. He said it is too aggressive and the economic impact of the GSP will destroy businesses within the district. Birmingham said the comments would be better saved for the SGMA item on the agenda and can either be entered into the minutes in relation to that agenda item or he can repeat them at that time. Grower Rebecca Kaser spoke support for Bourdeau. Neves said he’s disappointed in losing Errotabere as President but he’s pleased there are two good candidates in Bourdeau and Ferguson. Mike Henry spoke support for Bourdeau. The question was called and Ferguson got all of the votes but for Assemi, Bourdeau and Ceil Howe. Birmingham said he wants the public and staff to know how much Bourdeau’s contribution to the district has great value. Bourdeau said he will put his energy and support behind Ferguson.
Manager’s Report Sort Of
On another topic Birmingham said anyone is free to criticize Westlands, it’s staff or Birmingham personally. He said it is important decisions are made with accurate information. He said he would like to remark on Mr. Hughes’ remarks earlier about SGMA. Birmingham doesn’t usually speak out like this. He said Hughes was a signatory to an email from a group called “Westlands Growers Care” that claimed WWD’s only response to the CVP allocation was to thank the US Bureau of Reclamation for a paltry allocation. Birmingham said he understands the anxiety created by SGMA but WWD has a good Groundwater Sustainability Plan that he is proud of. He listed several accomplishments such as the CVP contract conversion.
Birmingham said Westlands does have district owned and managed underground groundwater storage referring to a land purchase in the Pasajero area that will be used for recharge. WWD also received a $10 million grant to help in these efforts. He put up on the screen a chart showing the data for projected runoff showed a drastic reduction in estimated amounts. By April 12th the situation causes anticipation for only 1.4 million acre feet of storage in Lake Shasta which in turn impacts storage in San Luis Reservoir. The Bureau made a five percent allocation for South of Delta CVP contractors then withdrew it. Birmingham said unlike in the past he’s thankful the Bureau is now ready to talk and act like a partner. He said he doesn’t understand why the false information is being put out there. He said he doesn’t want the perception that WWD staff has a cavalier attitude about what its growers are facing. He said staff is looking at transfers to help augment supplies. He asked the criticism be fair and based on accurate information.
Assemi had some comments thanking Birmingham and staff for securing the five percent. He said the process to get water is extremely complex and hard to explain. I know what he means. Assemi said Birmingham called out Reiter on one point and Birmingham responded by saying Reiter has good ideas. But the statement the district doesn’t have groundwater storage is wrong according to Birmingham. But Reiter was saying, if I understood correctly, the district doesn’t currently own recharge facilities that could store water in meaningful amounts. Birmingham said as a public agency WWD has to go through certain procedures and he’s proud of engineer Kiti Campbell’s leadership on SGMA. He said he’s amazed at what she’s been able to achieve. Assemi said an aggressive and streamlined recharge program by both the district and growers has to be implemented before a wet year takes place so it’s ready. Coelho said he believes the emails are too much on the personal side and no one will get far chewing on each other. He said he’s met with the Growers Care bunch and they are fine people but there are already enough enemies outside the district.
Russ Freeman, Deputy GM said there may well be 395,000 a/f with supplemental water brought in. The district used 12,000 a/f in March through the Groundwater Management Program. It won’t be cheap, I think I heard north of $900 per. Please double check this before freaking out.
Tom Boardman gave his part of the report saying there is a story about how we got here. Charts showed Shasta and Folsom Lakes runoff projections. There has been much talk about 90 percent and 50 percent exceedance. The 50 percent is pretty easy to understand – there’s a 50/50 chance of more or less water. The 90 percent shows a one out of 10 chance it could get drier. So the Bureau is saying it’s pretty dry alright. Boardman said it is very difficult for a district to get an allocation increase. It made more sense to suspend the five percent allocation than to drop it to zero and not get anything trying to raise it later in the year. There was hope back in March when the allocation was being formed there could be more snow and rain in the season. But now that April is here it was revealed March was a dry one. Shasta has to maintain a cold water pool to benefit the salmon and that requires less releases to keep the water level of the lake higher to insulate the cold pool. That means less inflow to the Delta, less pumping and therefore less supplies to growers. The US Bureau of Reclamation has to deliver a minimum amount to the Exchange Contractors, wildlife refuges and municipal health and safety supplies. That slug of water comes first and the Bureau may have to borrow 90,000 a/f from the State Water Project from San Luis Reservoir to meet those upfront demands. Boardman said the Sacramento River watershed is at its third driest in history so transfers may not materialize at as great an amount as hoped.
Bourdeau asked wouldn’t it be reasonable to allow more pumping during a pandemic. Birmingham said it is a reasonable request and similar situations in the past allowed for reduced regulatory takes resulting in more pumping. He also said the Cooperative Operation Agreement looks like the state will end up having to give over water to the feds. So, it’s a mixed up crazy wreck of a water world. He said the farmers need water now and efforts are underway to allow exchanges that can be reconciled later in the year.
Shelly Ostrowski, who may now be Shelly Cartwright* is the Associated GM for policy. She reported on pending federal legislation with money for canal repairs. She also said State Senator Melissa Hurtado is still working on SB 559 in Sacramento. Westlands is also giving away several scholarships to local high school seniors. Good for them.
Reiter made a few comments saying all the lobbying is good and is a good part of a multi-pronged strategy. The growers are interested in private recharge possibilities and other opportunities to improve the district that are in Westlands’ control. He thanked Birmingham for his willingness to air discussions. He said he hopes the exchange that has taken place today won’t chill landowners from staying engaged with the district, its staff and the board. Birmingham agreed with those sentiments and said it is very important for access to directors by growers. He said growers often ask directors for information and he hopes the directors will refer those inquiries to staff. He said directors can give the best info they have but it’s on staff to be accurate. Birmingham said WWD played a big role in the re-consultation under the WIIN Act that provided better protection to species and better supply reliabilities. The 2008 biops would have caused much more trouble this year than the 2019 biops because they were based on the calendar and not real time conditions. He reminded everyone WWD has a very big demand. If they were only looking for half of a total 100,000 a/f contract that would be much easier than the WWD’s current one million a/f need.
Elgorriaga asked if a grower can put in their own recharge basin and I believe he meant if that water has conveyance access to the district, can the grower get credit for that water. Birmingham said that is the way it is leaning. Campbell said there is a map by UC Davis that shows where good recharge areas are but it is only a starting point. There is Corcoran clay and other considerations not shown on the map. Assemi said Birmingham and Campbell did a good job in explaining the recharge possibilities. He said this process for determining recharge locations need to be streamlined. There should be a map that shows where the preferred recharge takes place.
Reiter said on the 2019 biops changes WWD is due credit for the positive advancement. The old biological opinions were based on calendar days it was thought fish would most likely be swimming by the pumps. He said, however biops is a factor largely out of the district’s control and he wants to see more recharge possibilities for this coming winter. Anderson asked if recharge wells qualify for low interest loans and that is something to be decided.
Errotabere reported on the Family Farm Alliance and Freeman reported on the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority. He said SLDM has a purchase agreement with Sacramento contractors for a water transfer. Coelho had nothing to report but for O&M saying there are two stretches in Westlands on the Delta Mendota Canal that have experienced subsidence problems. He said staff is working with the Bureau to determine if there needs to be changes to pumping plants and such. Birmingham said the cost to fix the canal will be shared by all involved and will ultimately come out of WWD’s coffers. Neves reported on the water coalition.
Campbell explained the Coalition was formed to deal with the Regional Board on behalf of the growers. There is a CV Salts program to address salt and nitrogen in groundwater. It has issued compliance orders impacting growers. The Regional Board changed up the requirements earlier this year and the coalition is reacting. The salt load is 700 EC and that level is often exceeded at the O’Neill Forebay at San Luis Reservoir. That’s kind of discouraging. There is an alternative that requires the district help finance a Prioritization and Optimization Study for Alternative Salinity Permitting Approach. It will cost about 11 cents an acre for the P&O Study. This study will last 15-years and could include a brine line (San Luis Drain sound familiar?) and a treatment plant. A motion was made to enter into the P&O Study and it will be CEQA exempt.
Campbell gave the board an update on groundwater from March 2020 to Februa 2021. She expects about a half million acre feet to be pumped this year. There was much more to the report but it was pretty heavy on tables and graphs. Most of the pumping from the high aquifer takes place in the district’s southeast quadrant. The aquifer below the clay layer has pumping that covers most of the district.
Campbell said this is the Westside GSA run by the WWD board. She said the annual report was turned in on time. She gave a summary of the GSP and implementation. There were more than 59 meetings and workshops to gather data for the GSP. It went out for public review and hearing and received 17 comments. Campbell said many other things but it would be best to look over the GSP yourself and it is available at https://sgma.water.ca.gov/portal/gsp/preview/8 to download as a PDF.
Elgorriaga commented on the report saying he prays that it rains but if it doesn’t there is a large number of growers in Westlands who don’t know what’s about to hit. He said there are folks drilling wells who haven’t done the math and it is important for everyone to help keep their neighbors informed. He said in the event there is a wet winter he’d like to recharge in the Panoche Bowl area in WWD. He said the focus is keeping the crops alive. He asked about the economic fallout to the local communities in Westlands. There were many other comments but one good source for finding out about the potential economic fallout – the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint has an economic impact report by Dr. David Sunding of UC Berkeley https://www.waterblueprintca.com/news Overall it sounded like there is a push from the growers to get recharge policy in place before it rains. There were also comments that the neighboring subbasins could be taking water underground before it reaches Westlands.
It was a shift in gears to hear a financial report. Nobody makes comments or even usually asks many questions. WWD VP of Finance & Administration Bobbie Ormonde – she didn’t have her glasses and I didn’t recognize her until she spoke. It was like Clark Kent and Superman, the difference. Good for her. Anyway, she gave concise, cogent reports on all matters to do with money and the district. The board approved everything and the bills will be paid.
The meeting went into closed session at 4:22pm. It was a long meeting.
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Westlands Water District
3130 N. Fresno Street, Fresno CA 93703 Phone:559/224-1523
Board: Daniel Errotabere-President, Frank Coelho Jr. – Vice President, Jim Anderson, William Bourdeau, Kevin Assemi, Ceil Howe III, Ryan Ferguson, Stan Nunn & Todd Neves.
Staff: Tom Birmingham-General Manager, Jon Rubin-Attorney, Jose Gutierrez-COO, Russ Freeman-Deputy GM Resources, Diana Giraldo-Public Affairs Representative, Shelly Ostrowski-Associate GM Water Policy, Kitty Campbell-Supervisor of Resources, Bobbie Ormonde-VP of Finance & Administrative Affairs.
About: Without irrigation, farming in the Westlands area of California would be limited and ineffectual. The history of Westlands is one of continual adaptation, careful water stewardship and advanced technology. By maintaining a fierce commitment to sustainability, the Westlands’ comprehensive water supply system continues to adapt, educate, and surpass conservation goals. Throughout its history, Westlands Water District has demonstrated a lasting dedication to water conservation and recognized that the long-term survival of its farms depends on the effective management of California’s precious water resources. From www.wwd.ca.gov