The Westlands Water District held its board of directors meeting at its Fresno headquarters and online with Zoom on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. There is a new start time of 9am. It gets pretty cozy in the old headquarters boardroom on Fresno and Shields Avenue. Chairman Jeff Fortune made a comment that it would be a speedy meeting but the ensuing giggling made me think different. I was attending online since I’ve been trying to get my new printer to work since 7am this morning and couldn’t be there. I bought it because I couldn’t get my old printer to work, at least wirelessly ever since my gear got infected with the Windows 11 virus. So, yes, I’m grateful the meeting is on Zoom. They all should be online, preferably on Zoom. We live in the 21st century in a state with a government that brags on how well it’s managed to make technology a worldwide leader in business and now it can’t pay its bills without it. Why not just mandate all government meetings should be made available online? Saves gas and that will keep the giant magnifying glasses orbiting geosynchronous above the state from causing climate change forest fires.
At 9:01am Fortune called the meeting to order. Attorney Jon Rubin announced that director Kevin Assemi was out sick but under the updated Brown Act if the board finds just cause he is allowed to participate. The board said OK and thanked Assemi for not coming to work sick. Assemi was on Zoom and could therefore vote and participate.
The assessment hearing started at 9:04am and the board became the board of equalization. The new General Manager Allison Febbo sat at the opposite end of the board table from where Tom Birmingham, the previous GM sat. Not necessarily a big deal but a noticeable change. The board accepted the recommended assessments and passed a resolution stating so. That ended the hearing at 9:10am. The hearing went quick as no one from the public spoke up.
The board went back to being just the board and the consent calendar was passed. Fortune introduced a special guest without naming her. It turned out to be Taryn Ravazini Executive Director of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion Project, a JPA. Ravazini previously worked for DWR and the California Water Commission. This is her first time before the WWD board in her new role as XO.
The plan is to raise the Los Vaqueros dam and this is the second time it’s been done. Storage will be increased from 160,000a/f to 275,000a/f and conveyance will be improved. JPA members will receive increased water supply reliability from storage and conveyance. The reservoir is off stream and located east of the Bay Area. Westlands is a JPA member.
Ravazini said the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority, Grassland WD and other State Water Project participants will be benefiters. Almost half the current funding is from the state, 21-percent from the feds and the locals are coughing up 30-percent or so. So far the total is $980 million raised. The JPA is seeking another $647 million in a WIFIA Loan. Ravazini said that might not be the final number but the construction completion target is 2030.
Lt. General Manager Jose Gutierrez spoke saying there is a better opportunity for WWD to secure transfer water from north of the Delta, especially during drier years through the Transfer Bethany Pipeline. Staff expects an average 21,500 a/f annual at about $600 per a/f delivered. There is a chance this supply could be delivered using only the State Water Project conveyance saving more money. This arrangement at Los Vaqueros could add a good deal of flexibility to the district’s ability to get cheaper water, extra storage and actually move the supplies when needed.
Assemi said the Byron Bethany Pipeline can help greatly when the Delta pumps are down. He said there have recently been zero allocations and the Los Vaqueros water can be used for supplemental water. But he wanted to know why this wouldn’t be available during normal years. Febbo said it is more economical during normal years to use the pumps, other year types conveyance and supply availability would place the LVR water in a better position. Maureen Martin from Contra Costa Water District said there would be some carriage loss but less salinity and that would depend on the color of the water. When someone is talking about the color of the water what is literally meant is the source of the water – state, fed or others. Director William Bourdeau asked about capital costs and if I understood Martin told him that is under negotiation with both the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources to work out the details.
Febbo started by thanking staff for their help. Russ Freeman gave his water supply report saying WWD has a 100 percent allocation and is getting 215 Water as well as other supplemental water. He expects 1.45 million a/f of delivered water this year. Groundwater pumping was significantly reduced. Fortune asked if growers can still file for supplemental water until June 1st and there is some confusion, will that water end up allocated anyway? Bourdeau said it is a great way to get the recharge amounts bumped up. Assemi asked if water had to be returned to the Bureau last time there was a wet year, in 2017. Some had to be returned and Assemi said sell the supplemental water to Pleasant Valley. Freeman said he’ll look to see if the ERI will allow this.
Director Justin Diener said the best would be to use the supplemental water for recharge. These options will be on the June agenda. Bourdeau asked if the board could authorize staff to get as much recharge as possible. Rubin and Febbo said the authorization option can be added next month. It doesn’t sound like any water will be missed before then. When the Kings River wanders into Westlands it can be pumped and that will help with downstream flooding. There are friends in the Delta understandably worried about levee integrity this year.
Assemi said there has been too much lost over the years due to poor policy on WWD’s part. Director Jeremy Hughes would like to recharge as much as possible but there is still the unknowns of the pilot project. He said a grower will do what they can to push the on-farm recharge forward after the summer harvest. He asked all growers to check their schedule and be ready to rock come September. He said farmers are still farmers and they want the future water. Febbo suggested bringing this back as an action item next month. Bourdeau said staff is doing a good job but it is up to the board to do all it can.
Sarah Woolf asked about allocations for Area Three and transfers between growers. Director Frank Coelho asked with the recharge water coming in wouldn’t Area Three receive its share of this water. Rubin said he’d have to look into it. There is a tiered availability with Area Three getting the hind nipple. I believe it was Bobbie Ormonde who suggested with this much water this year, policy could be adjusted. The board expressed its interest to see Area Three gets as much water as possible in light of this year’s bountiful supply.
Next Tom Boardman reported the reservoirs are fat and happy. Shasta is 100,000 a/f shy of being full but the snowpack waiting to inflow into the reservoir is causing the Bureau to release. Same with Folsom Reservoir. It has a 300-percent above average snowpack to deal with there. Delta outflow is 63,000 cfs and the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers should be providing full pumping through May and into June. That means 215 Water available for longer. The demand on the Mendota Pool is low and 4,900 cfs is passing downstream. The delayed snowmelt and large snowpack should provide plenty of water to meet Exchange Contractor demands.
Rubin said the Sacramento Regional Sanitation District has upgraded its treatment to tertiary quality and reduced the ammonia and nitrogen released into the Delta. This project initially resulted in controversy and that has since been reduced. The call for the cities in the Delta to clean up their wastewater releases has been one which Westlands has led over the years. The pumps are not the only stressors in the Delta.
Elizabeth Jonasson said there were 53 applicants for 17 scholarships. The desalination grant generated local stories. Nathan Diebold is the new public affairs intern. I may have misspelled his name.
Bourdeau reported the Family Farm Alliance has been working on the Farm Bill and managing headwaters and forests. Diener said he asked the SLDMWA to reevaluate its rates and it sounded like they did or will.
Director Russ Franson reported on last week’s ACWA conference and he said there are good plans in the works for WWD to host a tour this fall. Bourdeau said they were able to introduce Febbo at the ACWA Ag Committee meeting and she made some well received remarks. I was there and she did represent well.
Legal Affairs & O&M
Bourdeau turned the Finance & Administration report to Ormonde. Both he and Assemi recused themselves from this report. Bourdeau walked out of the room and Assemi exited the Zoom. Gutierrez reported on water operations and maintenance charges collections. There is a plan to transfer 60,000 a/f to Kern County water banks and staff is looking at waving the O&M or an offset. Director Jim Anderson suggested charging the O&M as the water leaves the district and as it returns – think he means half and half. These O&M water rates can be variable and go to help provide income to keep the district operating.
Kristi Robinson said having too much O&M could disincentivize bringing the water back. Coelho said the same thing and Eric Johnson said what I think was the same thing by phone but you couldn’t really hear him. It was brought out the expense of O&M for this water isn’t the same as normal O&M, it is lower. There is an accounting reason for this. Current WWD policy is to allow water allocated to growers to be sent out of the district with a return within 10-years. Coelho said the question is should water be allowed to leave the district if there is demand in the district? It was said in certain years that is the only option some growers have to keep that water. Robinson said growers would choose to bank water in Westlands when possible but that hasn’t always been an option before.
John Reiter asked how a grower can be forced to move water to Area Three? It was a bit rhetorical and Rubin told Coelho he and staff will look at this as a policy matter. Lindsay Cederquist spoke online advocating only one O&M charge. She said the transfer water is a tool and saved a lot of folks last year.
Ormonde next addressed salary schedule revisions. At least that’s what the agenda indicated, the audio got low for a while. She did say salaries need to be adjusted to help recruitment in several areas. This will also aid with in-house training. A survey of 17 other agencies was tabulated. It’s hard to get accounting staff to work as cheap as WWD pays, for instance. If the board adopts the increases they’ll start in June. Without comment the board approved.
Kitty Campbell reported the Westlands GSA is making progress in recharge this year. There are 142 recharge projects and they are cranking. It looks like they are sinking more than 4,000 a/f per day. Good for them. There will be a groundwater conditions report in June. Assemi commented on what a good job Campbell and the staff have been doing. He asked how to get more growers recharging more water.
Campbell said the district isn’t always able to continually recharge at operational capacity due to changing conditions and maintenance. She said she believes growers are facing the same thing. Bourdeau said WWD will have to take on much of the recharge and Campbell said the district is prepared to do so.
Next Campbell presented the board an option to restrict groundwater pumping and promote in-lieu recharge. She said only a third of last year’s pumping rates are expected. So far 31-wells have pumped the majority of water so far this year. This rate is decreasing as more education and outreach takes place.
Gutierrez updated the board on possible committee changes. Only the Finance & Administration Committee has delegated authority. There is a new board and GM at Westlands. The committees and the committee structure have been in place for many years. He said the committee structure does give staff interaction with the board and directors some extra expertise.
There were three options considered: No change but to notice meetings as joint committee and board workshops. Or, dissolve the personnel, legal affairs and ad-hoc committees. Personnel could be moved to the F&A. The last option is dissolve all committees (or retain F&A) and designate directors to provide guidance on specific topics and create ad hoc as needed.
Fortune said keeping F&A and Legal affairs should be retained. He said the new directors have pointed out, directors not on a committee are not allowed to attend. He said as long and drawn out as O&M is everyone needs to attend and get to know the plumbing. But he thought having workshops would be an advantage to allow time and money savings.
Anderson said he has found the current set up to be cumbersome. Assemi said he likes the third option but wants to make sure the board receives all the needed information as the new structure is designed.
Rubin said in addition to workshops there can be special meetings called. Bourdeau said he’s attended workshops but still cut out of closed sessions while trying to follow the rules. He’s found it challenging. Rubin said directors could be made Vice Presidents or the Chair could appoint them as lead on an item. He also said the Chair can call an ad-hoc committee.
A motion was made to dissolve all the committees but F&A and a point person designated for O&M and water policy. If I understood that is what happened with the approval vote but Assemi and Coelho voted no. Not a lot of split votes at district meetings.
Other Issues & Items
I had high hopes with a new board and GM Westlands meetings would be shorter. Not today. I had to leave for other appointments at noon. The meeting still had a full head of steam and no signs of slowing down. I felt for poor ol’ Kevin Assemi. Lying there in his sick bed having to expend energy on issues that could have went to healing. When I checked out the board was discussing a priority of allocation when a lateral is at maximum design capacity. Who gets the water? Irrigation or recharge. The board needed to hear an update on the BF Sisk Dam raise and then there were the closed session items. There were more than 20 items right there. So, goodbye.
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Westlands Water District
3130 N. Fresno Street, Fresno CA 93703 Phone:559/224-1523
Board: Jeff Fortune -President, Jim Anderson – Vice President, Frank Coelho Jr., William Bourdeau, Kevin Assemi, Ross Franson, Jeremy Hughes, Ernie Costamagna & Justin Diener.
Staff: Allison Febbo-General Manager, Jose Gutierrez-Lt. General Manager, Jon Rubin-Attorney, Russ Freeman-Deputy GM Resources, Kitty Campbell-Supervisor of Resources, Bobbie Ormonde-VP of Finance & Administrative Affairs, Bill Pierce Director O&M, Jim Carter-IT Guru and Elizabeth Jonasson- Public Affairs Representative.
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
SGMA: Westland WD is in the Westside Subbasin and the Westlands WD GSA. DWR #5-022.09