‘The Cadillac of California irrigation districts’

Westlands has more than a tiny fish to blame for its troubles.

  • A locked irrigation pump in Mendota, California, where drought and federal policy have left some farms dry.

    Renee C. Byer/Sacramento Bee/zuma
  • San-Luis-Reservoir.jpg

    The San Luis Reservoir, almost empty in October 2008 after a season of irrigating.

    Peter Bennett/Green Stock Media
  • Delta Smelt

    USFWS
  • some of the crowd that turned out last summer to watch Fox News' Sean Hannity broadcast his show on the California water crisis.

    Todd Fitchette
  • Farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

    BrotherGrimm/Wikipedia
  • A fishbowl containing look-alike relatives of the protected Delta smelt sits on a table between Reps. Ken Calvert and Devin Nunes at a House Natural Resources committee meeting last March.

    Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
  • A sign in a dried-up orchard in the San Joaquin Valley.

    Stephanie Ogburn/Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis
  • The Harvey O. Banks pumping station, capable of moving ing 21,000 acre-feet a day from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the California Aqueduct.

    California Department of Water Resources
 

Page 4

BACKED INTO A CORNER?
As of November, Westlands' fighting spirit was still much in evidence. In a barren field on the west side of the district, a yellow sign screamed, "CHANGE the LAWS or we'll CHANGE CONGRESS!" A passing semi tooted its air horn in approval.

Westlands is, somewhat paradoxically, in the most vulnerable class of water users that receive water from the Central Valley Project. During droughts, the project delivers water first to wildlife refuges and to irrigation districts that were formed before the first portions of the project were built in the 1930s. Cities come next, and finally more recently created agricultural districts, such as Westlands. In a wet year, Westlands receives 40 percent of all the water delivered through the Central Valley Project. But in a dry year that percentage can be much less -- in 2008, for example, Westlands' share was only 18 percent.

That vulnerability has shaped the district's dealings with the outside world. "We've had to be more aggressive, politically and legally, than water districts with a firmer supply of water," says Frank Coelho, a farmer who has been on the district's board of directors since 1991. "It's just the nature of trying to survive."

Tom Birmingham is the man charged with defending the district's interests, and pretty much everyone involved in the state's water politics keeps a close eye on his every move. Water bosses like those at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and San Diego, have gradually reached out to environmental groups. But Birmingham is not the type to hold up an olive branch, even though Westlands was careful to keep its name out of Hannity's environmentalist-bashing broadcast.

"Birmingham is devout. He's a believer," says one Westlands farmer. "He's a believer in the idea that farmers on the West Side should be allowed to farm. And a lot of people on the other side of that proposition" -- a reference to critics who say Westlands is a water-guzzling, fish-killing monster -- "would like to see the end of the district."

Birmingham began working as an outside attorney for the district in 1986, after a short stint with the pro-property-rights Pacific Legal Foundation. Fourteen years later he became Westlands' general manager. Birmingham tends not to mince words, and few people are as critical as he is of the effort to save the Delta. "The pumping restrictions have done absolutely no good for the fish," he says. "We've dedicated millions of acre-feet of water per year to protect those species, and they're still declining."

Even though, overall, Delta pumping increased between 1990 and 2005, Westlands has seen the reliability of its water supply erode, thanks to a complicated mix of federal and state pumping and priorities. Before 1993, the pumps could run all year long. Then the smelt was listed, and the window during which Westlands could pump water grew smaller and smaller.

Because that window now limits pumping to only the second half of each year, water users can't take advantage of the extra water available in the Delta at other, wetter times of the year like the winter. "What we want to do," says Birmingham, "is restore the ability of those pumps to operate at capacity year-round."

The quest to re-open the pumping window lies at the heart of Westlands' survival strategy. In search of relief, the district turned to Congressman Nunes and Sen. DeMint for Endangered Species Act waivers last year. Last March, Westlands -- through a broader group of local irrigation districts -- also sued the federal government to overturn the smelt biological opinion. Birmingham is particularly critical of the science behind the opinion, and says that a host of other problems, including pesticide runoff, invasive fish and high levels of ammonia from urban waste-treatment plants, are responsible for the Delta fisheries collapse. That case is still working its way through court, but in December, Westlands and the Water Authority asked Judge Wanger for an injunction to prohibit the pumping restrictions this year -- a motion that the judge will consider this month.

Yet even as Westlands aggressively challenges the biological opinions, it is one of the main participants in the quiet, ongoing series of negotiations to create a Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. The plan, which emerged in the wake of CALFED's collapse, seems likely to provide at least the raw DNA for the new governance entity mandated by the water package the California Legislature passed in November.

Some environmental groups view that process skeptically. "The environmentalists can sit in the back seat and offer suggestions," says the Planning and Conservation League's Minton, "but they don't have the grip on the steering wheel."

But Ann Hayden, a senior water resource analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund, who represents environmental groups in the process, says that the conservation plan has kept the water users' quest for better water reliability yoked to a meaningful effort to protect the Delta. In "this world of constant litigation, we've actually been able to make quite a bit of progress in the BDCP," she says. "I think we have a promising foundation to work from."

Still, the DeMint amendment and the political wrangling over Endangered Species Act waivers "has created a lot of tension in the BDCP process," she says.

The state's environmental groups are watching to see what happens when Congress returns this month. Sen. Feinstein has been working on several fronts to help Westlands and other water users. Last fall, she requested a review of the smelt biological opinion by the National Academy of Sciences; a preliminary report should be out this spring. The Senate will also consider a bill she introduced that would streamline the federal government's review and approval of water transfers.

Birmingham says that Westlands has not ruled out asking Congress for help in getting a waiver from the Endangered Species Act. "We will pursue every potential remedy," he says. But "not," he is careful to add, "without the express consent of Sen. Dianne Feinstein."

High Country News Classifieds
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....