The Westlands Water District held its board of directors meeting Tuesday, October 18, 2022 at its Fresno headquarters and online with Zoom. Say what you will about BIG AG but at least these guys use Zoom. Actually – Big Ag compared to what? Unaffordable food if not unavailable food? That’s called famine. An economy of scale is necessary for somethings like interstate highways, aircraft carriers and such. But agriculture isn’t a monolithic block and anyone who rails against – is missing several points. Also, General Manager Tom Birmingham wasn’t at the table today with Attorney Jon Ruben sitting in his seat.
Chairman Ryan Ferguson called the meeting to order at 1:00pm on the dot. There were no corrections or additions to the agenda and I just encountered the most confusing consent calendar I’ve ever seen. The agenda wasn’t clear, to me, the divisions of types of items. But after rereading it several times and my pride didn’t want me to look like the only donut in the room I fingered it out. It was item three parts a through e and it was under an underlined, italicized, centered heading so no wonder I couldn’t find it.
The first part of the GM report was Russ Freeman’s water report. Freeman said the state is using water modeling to predict if transfers could be allowed. Director William Bourdeau asked if anyone is verifying the results. Staff does follow the process closely but hasn’t had any success of changing any minds in Sacramento.
Next Tom Boardman gave his report saying inflows are dropping. If it’s dry next year the US Bureau of Reclamation expects a total of two million a/f at Shasta. An average or better year will yield four million a/f and that’s the golden ring for Delta exports on the federal Central Valley Project supplies. There is some precipitation forecast for the Shasta area before the end of the month.
Boardman said the Decision-1641 standard is controlling pumping at the Jones Plant in the Delta. Salinity intrusion into the Delta is limiting the amount of pumping. If there is some storm activity soon the amount of pumping could increase. San Luis Reservoir is down 30,000 a/f from the beginning of the month. Demands from the wildlife refuges and some ag demand is drawing down storage.
Birmingham called in and asked Olga Probst to step to the podium. He wanted to make the board and the public aware Mrs. Probst is retiring after 40-years of greeting the public at the front desk. There was a warm round of applause for her service, not that she’s retiring. Good for her. She has been the cheerful person to greet you when you come to Westlands’ offices.
Rubin reported on the biological opinions process. Shelly Cartwright reported on federal matters and said the Senate is working on defense appropriations. The California Congressional delegation introduced Congressman David Valadao’s new water bill. That bill was discussed in more detail earlier this week in the Friant Water Authority Executive Committee report.
Cartwright also reported comments on listing the long fin smelt as endangered are underway and staff is keeping up with this. She said Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed State Senator Melissa Hurtado’s bill to limit foreign ownership of farmland. Director Jim Anderson asked about funds for land retirement and if it would help with subsidence. Cartwright said there is some funding but taking money from that pot could reduce the amounts available for GSP projects. Anderson asked how Friant was able to get money for its canal repairs. Cartwright said Hurtado’s SB 559 brought a helpful amount of funding to the project of fixing the Friant Kern Canal’s sagging bottom that was the result of subsidence near the Tulare/Kern Counties’ line.
Elizabeth Jonasson spoke next saying yesterday WWD staff distributed food to Cantua Creek. Food donated by WWD growers. WWD also was present when Senator Hurtado presented one of those giant checks in Terra Bella. Thursday is a day without water day and Jonasson asked for input from growers about what that would look like.
Ruben reported the USBR sent a letter to the Exchange Contractors that it wants to renegotiate its contract with Ex Con. There has been one amendment that took place in 1968. Birmingham said he spoke with Chris White, Executive Director of Ex Con and White doesn’t expect any changes of note. There has been considerable pressure on the Department of Interior to open negotiations and Birmingham said Westlands will keep a very close eye on this since there has been so many positive results in collaborating with Ex Con.
Outside Agency Reports
Freeman said the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority met and there was talk of redoing the Jones Plant electrical systems. It’s also SLDM’s 30th anniversary.
Ferguson reported ACWA Region Six & Seven had a conference at Visalia last week.
Director Kevin Assemi said there wasn’t anything to report that hasn’t been said today.
District O&M Superintendent Bill Pierce was mentioned earlier in the meeting as having worked at WWD the longest. He said it’s been 43-years and his parents didn’t have to drop him off for his first day of work. So far 111 of the 190 meters needing to be installed should easily be finished by the end of November. It is the time of year for scheduled repairs and refurbishing. Certain canals and infrastructure are offline according to scheduled stops.
The first item under water policy was the Storage Treatment Aquifer Recharge plan. Chuck Gardner gave the board a report on the Hallmark Group’s proposed water recharge and remediation program. The Hallmark Group did get a portion of its bid approved and has started feasibility and other work. Gardner talked about geo-tech studies and aquifer hydrology. There are some problems with the scheduling as one would expect when drilling in California after an emergency order from the Gov. Gardner said Brown & Caldwell has been helping Hallmark with the Aquifer Storage & Recovery wells. Director Frank Coelho asked if Brown & Caldwell has any experience in the district. He was told by staff they were involved in the Broadview WD buy back program and has done well design for some of the drillers working on ASR wells in the district.
Assemi asked if the power for the pumps is in place and Gardner said even if PG&E isn’t ready generators can run the pumps and backflush the wells. Coelho asked if it wouldn’t be cheaper to just run the wells on generators and Gardner said that’s a good question. They are working on figures to see what the best cost savings would be.
Gardner said they have a plan for a 16,000 a/f recharge basin that could yield, I think he said 8,000 a/f annually. The cost for that project is about $6 million and somehow it will cost $500 per a/f. The water treatment portion of the Hallmark plan calls for the district to have its own Reverse Osmosis plant. They have a site in mind with a well but after videoing the hole there is an obstruction in the well. Could be a piece of rebar but the estimate is $100k to find out. If I heard correctly there will still be a brine line in the r/o treatment. Coelho asked if there has been any information from the Grasslands Bypass Program on how to deal with brine. He suggested remediation needs to be something besides crops a billy goat won’t eat. Gardner, to his credit, said Hallmark isn’t the only one with ideas. He said one of the key components is the ability to move water in and out. Moving it with gravity from west to east is fine but moving it uphill from east to west and doing so cost effectively is not being ignored.
Gardner also compared the surface area of several reservoirs in the area and the surface area of the proposed ponding basins. They all ran between 1,000-3,000 acres or so. Another portion of the plan calls for some embankments for the basins that could place them under jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Dam Safety. There are exemption but it isn’t yet clear if that’s possible. I don’t recall exactly but I do remember the state changing the definition of dams to the absurd. It was something like anything over six feet is a dam and the state can get its nose and nuts in the middle of it. Director Ceil Howell III said levees in the Tulare Lake bottom get beat by the wind and require incredible amounts of maintenance. One suggestion Hallmark is looking at is solar panels over the ponds.
Grower Sarah Woolf observed farmers have been trying to get water to the DACs and suggested Hallmark be aware the challenges that come with that. She also said there have been many farmers in the area dealing with brine lines and Jose Wheat Grass and it would be good to consult them. She also said putting in thousands of acres of percolation ponds and spending more than $24 million at this time before the due diligence is completed would be premature. Gardner said they are looking to learn more and open to suggestions.
Next the board asked staff about retaining a grant writing expert. Freeman said staff believes that would be helpful. The board spoke up at once to move and second. Coelho asked if they need a grant writer or grant birddog to find the grants. Birmingham said the request for proposals would include both parts. And the board said OK, go for it.
Backtracking to item five Bourdeau reported on his recent visit to Washington DC and described it as a very productive trip. He said the Family Farm Alliance newsletter covering the trip should be sent to all the Westlands growers.
The meeting has taken a while and Ferguson called a five minute break. In the big time water district world they are not called bathroom breaks, they are known as attention expander breaks.
Kitty Campbell reported the district is collecting the fall groundwater report. Assemi commented it would make sense to continue with the monitoring wells to measure how much help recharge can provide. Campbell said there is a request to DWR to complete two more monitoring wells that should wrap up in less than a year. There are 1,300 wells in the district being monitored and 300 of those are not active so they potentially will provide good info.
The groundwater report from March to August shows 20,000 a/f less pumped in Westlands this year over last. Campbell asked direction on helping establish a relative priority for supplemental water be used for fulfilling tiered pumping allocations requests. This sparked a discussion but the board tasked staff with collecting the data and coming up with some options.
Grower Justin Diener said there is frustration in the manner the district has handled the supplemental water program. Grower Jon Reiter said prioritizing supplemental water and taking the groundwater from the district purchased lands make sense. Grower Dan Hartwig said he also supports prioritizing supplemental water. The board decided to prioritize supplemental water over tiered pumping water. If I understood correctly.
Director Dan Errotabere asked WWD’s controller Bobbi Ormonde to report on the budget and she had a recommendation from the committee to return about $34 per a/f. You’d have to dig deeper into the district’s bookkeeping than I to fully understand that move. The board was asked to approve a budget transfer and augmentation. She said pumping and water expenses are in need of adjustment. So are salaries and fringe benefits. The employees represented by MOUs are due a raise and there is a one time COVID cooties payout. You may want to go to the official minutes for a more cogent description of this item. The board approved the action.
The last item before public comment and closed session was an update on the district’s strategic plan development and implementation. Jose Gutierrez said the district has been requesting comments from directors and interested growers. There were dozens of questions and the comment period is still open. There is a large document of the questions and responses. Gutierrez said he did his best to ensure the responses on the document were as close as possible summation of those given. There was a wide range listed and Gutierrez said the landowners want more control over projects as they believe they can do it better and cheaper. This could also tie in well with a grant writer/searcher. Also the growers want to make the decisions about what land should be farmed. Most directors believe the district should be involved in legislation and most growers felt only if there is a direct benefit. Growers believe the district should sell its lands within the district but not so much outside. On communication and outreach there was some move to focus more on the legislators and less to the public. The growers want more communication from the board. Growers also want the board to bring in more water to the district. Of course everyone wants to capture as much water as possible but not over build and strand assets or under build and miss out on water supplies.
Birmingham suggested a growers and directors workshop take place next month. He’d like to have the strategic plan memorialized in a document after the information is digested and discussed. Ferguson said he likes that idea. Bourdeau and Assemi thanked Gutierrez for his hard work. Grower Kristi Robinson asked if all the responses will be made public. Gutierrez said the comments are complete but without attribution. Reiter asked for a summary of conclusions would be helpful. Diener said it is an important document and there will be four vacancies in the next election. Birmingham said the candidates have participated in the previous workshops and whoever is elected would be able to comment next month. He said he didn’t believe having a workshop in November would clash with the election. So there will be a workshop next month.
The meeting went into closed session for 23 listed items after 3:30pm. Sometimes an item will stay on the agenda in case something comes up but not all items have to be addressed. Otherwise these guys are going to be spending the night at the office. Go be good to each other.
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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