The Westlands Water District held its board of directors meeting at its Fresno headquarters on Tuesday, September 19, 2023 and on Zoom, by far the superior online meeting platform out there. I wasn’t able to attend in person, bummer so few are as easy to travel to, but the Zoom view kept me informed. The agenda looked safe at first glance but there are a couple of Article 2 related items that could open a very lengthy discussion as it did last month.
And it appeared attorney Jon Ruben wasn’t able to be in the room and is resigning on the 22nd according to a press release. I guess in-house counsel Tommi Saghatelian will be serving as counsel for now. I don’t know where Ruben is going or what he’s got planned but I sincerely hope he does well. He’s always been really cool with me; not just answering questions but helping me understand the context. And he’s friendly and that’s a good trait in my book.
Things kicked off at 9:02am with Chairman Jeff Fortune calling it. General Manager Allison Febbo requested a change in the agenda order to facilitate the legal order dealing with land in Shasta County. Director Kevin Assemi asked if there was an item for recharge credit transfers and there is. The consent calendar was approved with one item pulled.
The meeting had to go to closed session at 9:08am for item 16 which made everyone leave the room. Under California’s Ralph M. Brown Act public meetings must be conducted in plain view of the public but for three categories: personnel matters, property negotiation and lawsuits. I see an interim general counsel appointment is also on the calendar. It looks like Director Assemi sent a letter to Febbo and that prompted a closed session item. There has been divergent views by various board members concerning how Westlands has handled its recharge options this wet year. You can read more about that here and here. The meeting came back to open session at 10:03am and there was no reportable action.
General Manager’s Report
Febbo said there were no updates on legislation. My dear friend and Westlands’ PIO Elizabeth Jonasson was out sick so no report there. However, some great news. Lt. Gen. Manager Jose Gutierrez reported the new offices are almost ready to go. Staff should be moving in by next month. The current Westlands building is for sale. Happy, happy, joy, joy. October’s meeting could be in a new, much more spacious room with plenty of electrical plugs and a bigger coffee pot.
Bill Pierce gave the Operations & Maintenance report saying he only had three dozen issues to touch on briefly. Thankfully that was a deliberate exaggeration. Good for him. Pierce reported the crews have prioritized recharge facilitation and while that is important a couple of maintenance items are going to be wrapped up later than usual for this time of year. But he said it won’t compromise operations.
Tom Boardman gave his CVP report saying there is 3.39 million a/f in Shasta which is higher than the US Bureau of Reclamation’s projection. This should help the cold water supply for next year’s summer supplies. Folsom is at 690,000 a/f which is high for this time of year. Inflows are still running 20 percent or more above average for this time of year.
Boardman said the Jones Plant had to reduce pumping for maintenance work. It’s running four units instead of five. The Banks Plant is running under the Fall X2 and the incidental take permit for smelt. The Bureau isn’t making a COA announcement at this time. He expects to be to all pumps ahead at Jones pretty soon. The San Luis Reservoir is at 803,000 a/f on the federal side. This set a record for the biggest low point. SLR should be full by the end of the year but for sure by January. More good news from Boardman. Not something he always has been able to pass along.
Director William Bourdeau will be visiting with President Brandon; sorry I mean Biden, perhaps when he takes a trip to Washington DC in a little bit. Russ Freeman reported some maniac is proposing to put solar panels over the Delta Mendota Canal, if I heard right. Febbo said she’s finally officially on the Broadview WD board and will be keynote speaker for the upcoming ACWA Regional Six and Seven gathering at Harris Ranch.
Bobbie Ormonde reported on investments and such. The board approved her report and that, if I understood included some budget quarterly reports. The board considered some dues and donations to the California Special Districts Association and the Public Policy Institute of California. Febbo said there is room in the budget to move around the money to make this work. The board agreed.
Next the board heard from staff about water rates methodology. The board decided to table this item until next month. Gutierrez told the board the schedule of salaries needs updating in order to remain competitive with other agencies and on Cal Pers good side. The district has some positions that have been open for some time. He presented the board suggested salaries and the board approved.
Engineer Kiti Campbell reported on the district’s progress on implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Agency’s compliance. There are more than 300 approved projects with about 80 up and running. So far this year WWD has recharged 125,000 a/c between district and private efforts. The Paso Jaro Recharge project will be fully operational by early next year.
Director Ross Franson asked if there has been an increase in recharge since some of the harvest has been completed. With as much water this year a lot of the land that would have been used for recharge was planted. And once harvest is completed there’s expected to be a big bump in recharge. After all you can’t grow garlic under water. Campbell said there is an increase in recharge as harvest progresses but they haven’t been able to quantify the amount yet.
Director Justin Diener asked staff to fence and post no trespassing signs at the new recharge areas. He said he’d like to know more about how to deal with this year’s extra water since some of the benefits are based on percentages. Fortune said it may be necessary to have a special meeting in two weeks to expedite finding more water to recharge.
Campbell next presented the board with Resolution No. GSA 103-23 to amend the rules to transfer groundwater. There could be carryover of transition allocation water up until 2030 and Campbell said there were three figures based on hydrologic years run through a model. Grower Will Coit asked for the board to allow transfers of cumulative well credit transfers – like if someone puts in solar and doesn’t farm. I think the idea is if there is enough groundwater and no subsidence this could be implemented, according to the board. Grower Dan Hartwig asked about stacking on the different transition allocations and Campbell said it will be based on the current year allocation. However, other credits could be stacked. The board approved.
Gutierrez reminded the board that last month there was a lot of talk about changing Article Two concerning non-permanent fallowing. The question is should benefits continue for non-irrigable lands as well. He said either way this won’t impact WWD’s finances but it will have to be found exempt from CEQA. Assemi asked for more clarity on excess M&I at the next meeting. Gutierrez said landowners could receive nothing if they fallow and there is no water available. The board approved.
The next item was related. Freeman gave an update on water usage. He said this year’s fallowing is similar to last year with 800,000 a/f for crops and 250,000 a/f for recharge saved. There’s about 211,000 acres fallowed this year which is about the same amount as a no water year. Ormonde asked to wait until next month for details when more information can be aggregated.
Febbo presented the board with a new management structure plan. There are new positions but no increase in total number of staff. So old positions would change. There will be a board clerk separate from executive assistant. Saghatelian reminded the board in open session the discussion can’t be about any employee, only about positions.
Febbo said with Ruben’s exit there will be a general counsel and separate legal and regulatory affairs. The CEO will be joined by a CAO to help with administrative issues. The Director of Science position has been terminated. There will be an interim general counsel and Saghatelian said before there could be any hiring there has to be a job description. This is an informational report. Director Frank Coelho reminded everyone the district is shrinking and won’t be able to support its current levels. Febbo said this is her plan to reorganize the management to allow for better service.
Next Febbo gave an update on district consultants. It’s a long list that could take a couple of hours to go over it. She proposed a special workshop and that was acceptable to the board. Assemi asked Febbo about the strategic plan and she hopes to kick it off in the next month or two.
Item 12 was for the board to consider a representative for labor negotiations to hire an interim general counsel. Saghatelian said this is an open session item but the negotiation must be in closed session, followed by an open session decision. Febbo and Franson will represent the district.
Gutierrez informed the board the state wants an easement on the district’s Yolo Bypass property. This will somehow increase the district’s compensation by $50,000 and this is exempt from CEQA I believe as it will help salmon. The board approved.
Public Comment & Even More Closed Session
There was a comment from Coit that selling district land to an Indian tribe will bring blessings to the district. With that the meeting went back into closed session at 11:50am. Go be good to yourselves and each other.
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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