I am a farmer in the Westlands Water District. That is not an easy thing to admit these days.
My acres there aren’t vast, nor do I wield much power. I have never sat on the board of directors. Like other smaller farmers in Westlands, I’ve had to accept the reality that the direction of the district – misguided as it has been of late – is beyond my control.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice. For the past several years, I’ve been speaking out in private meetings with my fellow growers. Now, given the district’s bent toward secrecy and its habit of shooting itself in the foot, I am choosing to speak out publicly.
Let’s start with Westland’s reason for existence. The district is there to advocate for its farmers. I am not an enemy of the environment or the Delta. I understand the importance of our fisheries. At the same time, I think we have a righteous case for receiving water as part of the Central Valley Project.
What people tend to forget is that the project itself was built in the 1940s in the name of agriculture. The premise was to redistribute some of the state’s water from its flood-prone north and move it to productive soils in the middle.
Among our 600,000 acres in Westlands is some of the most fertile soil in the world. Yes, some of it is plagued with salts and selenium, but much of it isn’t. And that distinction gets lost on the public, in part because the present leaders of Westlands keep making foolish decisions that allow us to be portrayed as the big, bad water guzzler of California.
The blame lies squarely with our general manager, Tom Birmingham, and a handful of longtime board members who continue to support him even in the wake of news stories that paint Westlands as manipulative, self-serving and, in some cases, highly unethical.
Last December, The New York Times ran a front-page story revealing that the district had spent nearly $1 million to prop up a lobbying group called El Agua. The intention of the group is to add the voice of Latino farmworkers to the debate over severe cutbacks in water deliveries to Fresno County’s west side – a worthy goal but less so when it seems that the puppet master behind the scenes is Westlands.
Like many readers, I was surprised to learn that such large sums of money were spent by Westlands to support a front group. And I have been disappointed that public efforts to find out more about the relationship between El Agua and Westlands have been stymied by a lack of transparency on the part of our leadership. Secrecy is not what we need right now.
Then in March, I learned from news accounts that the Securities and Exchange Commission had handed down a penalty of $125,000 to the district and even fined Birmingham $50,000 for issuing misleading financial information crucial for the district’s bond financing.
Birmingham, who serves as both general manager and general legal counsel, stated publicly that the district used “a little Enron accounting” to help achieve debt-coverage ratios. That is not so funny or smart for someone holding down the fort.
Then last week, I picked up the newspaper only to learn that the management of Westlands saw fit to loan $1.4 million, at a ridiculously low interest rate, to a senior-level employee so he could buy a luxury house in Northern California. The interest rate is below 1 percent, and the loan has extended for several years after the initial due date passed.
The farmers I know cannot operate their farms in such a slipshod manner and survive. So why are we allowing such management practices during a time when we have endured federal water allocations of just 5 percent of our contract this year and zero percent in the two previous years?
Perhaps you’re thinking that somehow the government and indirectly your taxes underwrites all this mismanagement. Not a chance. In fact, it comes from monies charged to me and every other grower in the form of assessments and land based charges.
We should be demanding transparency and restoration of trust. In the face of challenges that require new leadership grounded in solid policy, we are instead made to suffer a series of embarrassing gimmicks.
I am proud of the transformation that has taken place in the soil of Westlands over the past two decades. Most of the water we receive now goes to growing high-value nuts, fruits and vegetables that, unlike cotton or grains, receive no federal crop subsidies.
Now it is time for a similar transformation to take place in our management. The Central Valley Project succeeded beyond the wildest predictions in turning the fertile soil of Westlands into some of the world’s most productive farms. That story, sadly, has been lost in all these shenanigans.
Brad Gleason of Fresno farms and owns acreage in Westlands Water District near Coalinga. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.