Buddy Mendes, chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and a farmer known for his colorful language during meetings, rattled the supervisors’ chambers Tuesday by loudly accusing an environmental advocate of lying about water prices charged to low-income farmworker communities.
The issue arose as a handful of residents of the small farming community of El Porvenir voted on a $5 rate increase for their monthly water bill, which already exceeds $100 per month.
Supervisors wanted residents to vote because they must approve their own rate increases in accordance with Proposition 218. If residents don’t approve the rate hike, their water could be shut off.
Last year, a 50 percent rate increase for neighboring Cantua Creek was opposed by the community. Water would have been shut off if not for action by state legislators who floated money to the county to keep the taps on. The state also has paid for bottled water because tap water doesn’t meet drinking standards due to high levels of disinfectants used to clean the raw supply, which is delivered by the Westlands Water District.
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On Tuesday, the board chamber was packed by purple-shirted members of a county union who were there to give support to El Porvenir and to make public comments about contract negotiations that were headed for a closed session by the supervisors after the water-rate matter.
Mendes raised his voice and said the advocate, Janaki Jagannath, was being dishonest about the water’s cost, comparing much lower rates paid in Fresno to rates charged in farmworker communities.
I believe that Supervisor Mendes’ comments were not fact but an opinion. It showed his disregard for listening to additional facts.
Janaki Jagannath, community advocate for El Porvenir
Jagannath said her organization is investigating the difference between prices charged to farmers and to the municipal and industrial users in the Westlands district.
Under federal policy, farmers don’t pay interest on the cost of the project for their water, but other users do.
“The answer to the question is, your leftist buddies in Northern California won’t let them run the pumps,” Mendes thundered at Jagannath, referring to pumps in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta that move water south to the central San Joaquin Valley. “That’s why that water is so expensive.”
Mendes’ outburst echoed a common complaint by Valley growers – that environmental costs are heaped on water users, raising the price of doing business and the cost for those who need water for manufacturing and home use.
In recent weeks Mendes has commented about thousands of acre-feet of water being sent to the Pacific Ocean from California reservoirs instead of remaining in the state for storage and use by growers and others.
Jagannath said her agency, the San Joaquin Valley Sustainable Ag Collaborative, is investigating Westlands about the price it charges rural residents for water.
Mendes, who has some farmland in the Westlands district, became increasingly angry as she talked from the podium, ordering Jagannath to shut up and sit down. He had a similar reaction to a union advocate who spoke afterward in support of lower prices for the water.
I should have said something sarcastic like ‘That’s the best bald face lie I ever heard,’ without raising my voice.
Buddy Mendes, Fresno County supervisor
Jagannath continued talking calmly as Mendes spoke with increasing volume from the dais.
“I believe that Supervisor Mendes’ comments were not fact but an opinion,” she said Wednesday. “It showed his disregard for listening to additional facts.”
She described his outburst “as extremely disrespectful.”
Westlands officials say they have met with residents in Cantua Creek and El Porvenir and offered information about costs they charge the county for raw water. The county then adds on its costs for staffing and monitoring the plants and delivering the water to homes.
Westlands ships water to several small communities on the west side of Fresno and Kings counties. The district charges by the acre-foot based on the cost of water, and the ultimate cost depends on the piping route for deliveries.
The cost per acre-foot for Lemoore Naval Air Station is $1,100 per acre-foot, and the cost to Fresno County’s small communities is about $490 per acre-foot, said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager for external affairs for Westlands.
The price is the same as Westlands’ costs because the district can’t make a profit under Proposition 218, he said.
“There is not a red cent of profit in Westlands for delivering water,” he said. “It’s the actual cost, debt and then the county tacks on for treatment … this is not a profit-making endeavor, it’s whatever it costs to move water.”
Other supervisors react
Supervisor Brian Pacheco said that it’s also illegal for the county to use its funds to offset costs for water in one county service area. All areas must be treated the same, said Pacheco, whose district includes El Porvenir.
As for Mendes, he said if he had to do it over again, he probably wouldn’t have hollered. But he would not back down from pointing out what he views as fallacies in Jagannath’s arguments.
“I should have said something sarcastic like, ‘That’s the best bald-faced lie I ever heard,’ ” Mendes said. “Without raising my voice.”
Supervisor Henry Perea said from the dais Tuesday that Mendes’ views did not necessarily coincide with his or other board members’.
“We speak with a lot of passion up here,” he told Jagannath. “I respect my board chairman’s passion, but please don’t take it as me being supportive of those comments.”
Other supervisors were taken aback by the tone Mendes took.
“It was baffling and extremely awkward,” Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said Thursday. “I was very surprised by it.”
As the meeting ended, the board voted to have Mendes write a letter to the federal Bureau of Reclamation to ask if it could offer a price break on water to Westlands to serve its most impoverished users.
Jagannath said she agreed with the board’s action and added: “We’re very much on the same page.”