The Westlands Water District held its board of directors meeting on Tuesday, November 15, 2022 at its Fresno headquarters and online with Zoom. The meeting began at 1:00pm with Chairman Ryan Ferguson calling things to order. Ferguson lost his reelection bid and felt compelled to read into the record his gratitude for having been able to serve the growers and staff of Westlands. He thanked them all for working with him and he thanked his family for stepping up during the extra demands being the president of the largest water district in the nation put on his time. It was heartfelt, sincere, a little emotional and showed an amazing amount of class. Good for him. General Manager Tom Birmingham said in his long tenure at Westlands he’s never had a better board president than Ferguson. Good for him too.
Next the board heard the audit report from last year. Over the years I’ve developed some specific criteria for audit reports. Unless there is something wrong or there’s a pleasant surprise it isn’t necessary for the CPA or whoever is speaking to devote much time to a page by page detailed verbal report. In fact there is no legal requirement the audit report must be read aloud. I understand the zeal many CPAs have to give an exhaustive report. I mean they worked they butts off to get this annual report across the line and are proud of it. When viewing the audit report online there are options for the observer denied those in actual attendance. Snacks, bio breaks to extend the attention span and the like are available when a report goes a little long. I realize this is a serious and necessary function to ensure transparency and it’s also not bad for Ritz crackers and peanut butter in case you didn’t have time for breakfast or lunch. Westlands’ controller Bobbie Ormonde has been intimately involved and recommended the board accept this report. There were a couple of questions by board members and the board said OK. But not before grower Will Coit, I believe, could have been Will Gleason, put the lady giving the report on the spot when asked how she came about certain figures she didn’t have knowledge of.
The report began with Russ Freeman’s water report saying year to date the district has used more than 100,000 a/f in this new water year. About 46,000 a/f of groundwater was pumped in this same time.
Tom Boardman said Shasta is 300,000 a/f fuller now than at this time last year. There was some inflow but not enough to keep the reservoir from being drawn down. Levels should improve in the next week or so because another storm is predicted. It will be a warmer than usual storm so we’re not looking at much snowpack.
Boardman said the State Water Project still owes the fed side 56,000 a/f and if Oroville gets some of this weather that may allow the state to pay back its debt to the federal contractors. There is now two units pumping at Jones but there’s going to have to be more Delta inflow to keep that going. Refuge demands and lower pumping have but a 55,000 a/f dent in filling San Luis Reservoir below what the US Bureau of Reclamation was expecting. Director Kevin Assemi asked the impossible question – any idea what allocation will be announced. Boardman said that is impossible to answer such a question this early in the year but it will take another 700,000 a/f in San Luis by spring before there is any allocation given.
Next Birmingham asked Shelly Cartwright for her report and she said it looks like the Democrats will retain the Senate and the Republicans will gain the House. Closer to home it looks like Robert Rivas will take over the speaker of the state assembly and there will be two new members of Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration.
Cartwright reported congressmen David Valadao and Cliff Bentz from Oregon toured the Valley including Westlands. Bentz will chair the Water, Ocean and Wildlife Committee, so it’s good for him to know what’s happening in the Valley.
Director William Bourdeau said the Family Farm Alliance is very busy but one big take is that fine organization is working on getting the word out on global food security.
Assemi asked attorney Jon Rubin if had anything to report on the election or the biological opinions. Rubin said he didn’t have anything about the district elections but the biops are being sued. He said the state and federal contractors are working to get an alternative plan before the court. Birmingham added the Delta is currently operating under D-1614. Rubin added there will be a legal affairs committee meeting next month. Bourdeau asked if the state learned from sending out millions of acre feet to sea during a drought. Rubin said there is a provision in the plan to be presented that will allow for the retention of flood flows.
Bill Pierce said there was a fire at a pump station on lateral that serves Harris Farms’ horse unit. One of the four pumps was destroyed and staff is doing everything possible to get it up and running again. There have been some problems with older equipment failures and staff is developing a report on matters. Pierce also said things are on schedule for metering wells. Landowners have been very cooperative. Pierce said he’d like to say his only concern would be good weather.
Personnel & Water Policy Committee
Bourdeau said there was nothing to report at this time. Director Jim Anderson asked Chuck Gardner from the Hallmark Group to give an update. Gardner said his group has contacted the Grasslands Drainage District to find out their experience with desal. He was told to plant a cash crop if possible and be sure nothing gets back to the San Joaquin River. He also did some investigations at the Tulare Lake area and is looking at gear heads that will allow pumping from generators if PG&E can’t provide power. Brown & Caldwell’s Ken Wooster has been designing the wells and he has experience in this area. Gardner said DWR wants to review all bid packages before RFPs can be issued. He also said a WWD grower reached out to him with some money savings suggestions on the wells and of course Gardner was thankful.
Gardner said it’s been a year since Hallmark first presented Westlands to develop 1.9 million a/f of reliable water supply. He said in 2017 if the facilities were in place including 9,296 acres of recharge basins operational the district could have picked up 274,000 a/f if all of Westlands current conveyance was used. If there could be a 148 cfs increase in capacity they could pick up 381,000 a/f.
The Hallmark plan calls for 18,000 a/f storage, nine ASR wells, 40,000 a/f treatment annually and 9,296 acres of recharge basins. Gardner showed an aerial photo of some Arvin Edison Water Storage Districts’ basins to show how the contours could look. He estimated the costs will be about $5,100 per acre for earthwork to install the recharge ponds. They figured designs what wouldn’t trigger the state’s Division of Dam Safety getting involved on the levees. That means the levees have to be less than six feet tall.
Assemi thanked Gardner and asked the difference between turnout capacity and conveyance capacity to get the water to the actual recharge sites. Gardner said that is a valid concern and the next stage of research will involve determining the actual conveyance capacity. Someone else spoke up and said these recharge sites need to be a combination of private landowners and the district.
Birmingham suggested Gardner come back to the Water Policy Committee with some refined figures and recommendations the committee could then work on presenting to the board. I believe it was Anderson who said the best use of the land near Mendota may be solar and those proceeds could go to funding more of these recharge basins. Director Frank Coelho said he doesn’t believe the one hour of water policy committee isn’t enough time to hash through this. Anderson said he can schedule a workshop and it can be on Zoom so more folks can attend.
Director Dan Errotabere asked what this program can do when tied in with other programs. Gardner said these figures are based on a stand alone concept but when used in collaboration with other programs the benefits improve a good deal. The board took a break at 2:57pm.
Kitti Campbell reported there is grant funding for nine ASR wells, one in Broadview and eight in subsidence prone areas throughout the district. This would allow direct injection below the Corcoran clay. Ferguson directed staff to get a map of the locations to the board members. Jose Gutierrez said the locations were selected in part near monitoring wells on district owned property. This allowed measuring without having to get landowner easements.
Next Campbell presented the board with a resolution to give authority to staff to seek a DWR Grant, SGMA Implementation Round Two, or Prop 68 funding. There are all kinds of benefits listed by Campbell including how DACs can be helped. Anderson asked if there are some grants available to landowners and Campbell said there are some NRCS grants available. Part of the boards direction in hiring a grant person is to find these opportunities and help growers. The board was all for supporting the resolution.
Campbell spoke about water supply options. In July the board sought subscriptions for SGMA substitute water, surface water for subsidence areas that could prevent pumping. This is tiered water that could be redistributed. Anderson suggested strongly this water be distributed to everyone since all the Westlands growers are paying for the land. Coelho flatout made a motion to not make this water available to everyone and restrict it to allocations on the most subsidence impacted areas. This water is coming from under the land the district purchased. There was a unanimous approval so it looks like Coelho’s point won the day.
Public Comment, Closed Session & Item 15
Under public comment I found out it was Will Gleason who had the question during the audit report. Also told Ferguson I’ll miss him. He and I have had a few discussions regarding a mutual love of rodeos. The closed session agenda had 24-items if I counted correctly. There was also an interesting Item 15 that was after the closed session.
Item 15 read, “Board of Directors to Consider Authorizing the President of the District to Execute a Third Amendment to the General Manager’s Employment Agreement.” What makes this noteworthy is the next time the board meets it will be a new bunch of men. Justin Diener, Jeremy Huges, Ross Franson and Ernie Costamagna will be taking the oath. Whoever is General Manager of Westlands serves at the pleasure of the board and has a contract and all, but if a majority of the board says bye, he or she will get a severance package and be on his or her way. It’s no secrete there is discontent at Westlands. And part of that discontent is directed at Birmingham. I don’t farm there, Westlands is not a client of mine and I’m sure if I had skin in the game I’d have a stronger opinion. My guess is Birmingham is facing an uphill struggle with the new board. And I think the new board would want some say so in the third amendment to his employment agreement. I’ll add this; Birmingham has always defended his staff against any and everyone. There’s that to consider. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.
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Westlands Water District
3130 N. Fresno Street, Fresno CA 93703 Phone:559/224-1523
Board: Ryan Ferguson -President, Frank Coelho Jr. – Vice President, Jim Anderson, William Bourdeau, Kevin Assemi, Ceil Howe III, Daniel Errotabere, Stan Nunn & Jeff Fortune.
Staff: Tom Birmingham-General Manager, Jon Rubin-Attorney, Jose Gutierrez-COO, Russ Freeman-Deputy GM Resources, Elizabeth Jonasson-Public Information Officer, Shelly Cartwright-Associate GM Water Policy/ Public Affairs Representative, Kitty Campbell-Supervisor of Resources, Bobbie Ormonde-VP of Finance & Administrative Affairs and Bill Pierce Director of O&M
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