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November 3 is filled with many elections many of us have not heard of. Unbeknownst to many, some voters will pick five new members of the Board of Directors of the Westlands Water District.

GV Wire℠ had a chance to speak with two of those running for seats by Zoom on Thursday.

Both offered insights into how Westlands can change its reputation, how farmers can change their approach, and what their biggest adversaries are in the fight for water.

National Security Issue

“As a former Marine, I understand the importance of being able to provide supplies to yourself. If we rely on foreign countries for our food, we become vulnerable.”– William Bourdeau

“I believe farming is a necessity for a variety of reasons. For national security reasons,” says William Bourdeau, Westlands director and vice president of Harris Farms, “As a former Marine, I understand the importance of being able to provide supplies to yourself. If we rely on foreign countries for our food, we become vulnerable.”

“I think we need to educate the population. The large metropolitan population areas, I think, have a misunderstanding of Westlands and its contribution to society,” explains Bourdeau.

Westlands already does this is by bringing people out and literally putting boots on the ground. Westlands hosts interactive tours of the west side and participates in several community events.

Biological Opinion Challenged

“We have to look beyond legislation and legal change, and look toward things like recharge, groundwater banking, infrastructure, and working with other districts for opportunities in wet years to store water.”Kevin Assemi

In February, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the California Natural Resources Agency, and the California Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for failing to protect endangered fish species from federal water export operations.

Kevin Assemi, Maricopa Orchards CEO and Westlands Water District Advisory Committee member is looking beyond some of the past water fights, and into the future with more solutions. “We have to look beyond legislation and legal change, and look toward things like recharge, groundwater banking, infrastructure, and working with other districts for opportunities in wet years to store water,” says Assemi.

Becerra’s lawsuit asserts that biological opinions prepared by federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act to direct water project operations lack safeguards for protected species and their habitat in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds, including the Bay-Delta. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the lawsuit requests that the court declare the Trump Administration’s adoption of the biological opinions unlawful.

Bourdeau says he has no problem protecting the environment, but there needs to be some middle ground.

“I do think we should conserve. I do think we should put water to its best and highest use,” says Bourdeau. “But I also think that we need to make sure that if we are diverting water for environmental purposes that we actually get a return on that investment. I think they (environmental interests) should be held accountable just like we are.”

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

A new era of groundwater management began in 2014 with the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which aims for local and regional agencies to develop and implement sustainable groundwater management plans with the state as the backstop.

“We do need to make significant investments to make sure we have a vibrant and very reliable water supply,” says Bourdeau.

Most farmers agree that SGMA will lead to the loss of farmland, especially in the areas where there is no reliable surface water.

That’s why those in the farming community are looking at doing things differently.

“If you have storage of recharge and storage of groundwater and groundwater banking, you have more certainty of how much water you’re going to have,” says Assemi. “Right now there is so much uncertainty and we need to provide predictability to growers. From year to year, growers have very little predictability on how much water they’re going to have, and how much it’s going to cost.”

Bourdeau sees the future as being a mix of water recharge basins, water banks, and more. “Westlands water district uses drip irrigation. We’ve spent billions of dollars in making sure that water is not wasted.”

Biggest Adversary

Bourdeau says the biggest adversary facing Westlands is the Natural Resource Defense Council based in San Francisco. “I do not think the negative portrayal of Westlands is accurate,” said Bourdeau.

GV Wire℠ asked if there’s any hope of finding common ground with the NRDC. “I testified before Congress and Jared Huffman who was a former NRDC employee chaired the meeting. We had a good discussion and he treated me fairly. But, we disagree on lots of things,” explained Bourdeau.

Bourdeau also thinks more time needs to be spent in Sacramento talking with policy makers about why it’s important to keep a healthy farming ecosystem south of the delta.

“We have opponents and adversaries that have misled the public in the past,” according to Bourdeau. “Years ago maybe there was good reason for some challenges in mistakes that were made but those have been rectified and I think our contribution is wonderful.”

3 Responses

  1. Keith Freitas

    The stigma of the corporate westside farmers is one that will be hard for Westlands to shake ! i.e. I actually worked for one of those “Cadillac Farmers” its true Anthony Gersich drove around the fields of Picked Rite Farms in a Cadillac and many a day I witnessed him jumping levee’s and and negotiating fresh disked fields. It was not about the car as much as it was about the attitude of the man (farmer) i.e. His business partner Rinks Sano was a very nice man and great boss who took pride in keeping himself and his financial success in check. He never made me feel under him, as all his employee’s worked with him along side him etc….

    Some of the more powerful westside farmers will have a challenge shaking this stigma and the book was pretty much truth although it was not representative of the majority of the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. I later in life became one of those westside farmers and started very very small with no tractor’s, no money and very little help, but thanks to the heart and soul of Peter Hansen with Producers Cotton Oil Company, who back my first cotton growing venture on property owned by a superior court judge on a hillside field located just 5 miles from the famous Harris Ranch Restaurant I started my first building blocks to my own farming successes and failures. The bottom line remains that the State is claiming control over our natural resources and they have taken the power of the courts and judges limiting the scope and range of water law and water rights fights to very narrow debates.

    Westlands is smart to fight back on all flanks including the public image flank ! Capturing water when it’s here in any way possible is the only hope for the sustainability of the Central Valley Farming Industry, PERIOD! Farmers without water are like humans without blood. As an example in the south valley there is a recharge and holding basin known as Tulare Lake Basin now being farmed by a mega corporation called Boswell Farming, Inc. Boswell has almost or more sister holdings and farming business in Australia then they do in Tulare County, but that single basin in Tulare Lake is capable of holding 2 million acre feet of flood waters every year without a dam. If Boswell wanted to change the public perception of the Cadillac farmer book, and some recent environmental hit pieces done by Hollywood producers, they could convert their business model to one of a water bank, charge a fair rate for the water and in one fail swoop of the pin change the face of the valley for many years to come.

    If Mr. Bourdeau is speaking of this type of ingenuity as one of his non-litigation solutions then I would give Westlands Water District farmers half a chance of meeting the sustainability “new normal SGMA models” otherwise if the solutions are not that bold and encompassing my prediction is almost one half of this region will succumb to the regulatory, taxing, and labor designs being pushed by the states one party controls on our political horizon. The “TRUMP FACTOR” even if he wins four more years will have an uphill battle helping the San Joaquin Valley Farmers survive the onslaught.

    Reply
  2. Craig Bell

    The nation watched as Almond and Pistachio growers went all out for ten years in the middle of a drought planting new acreage. So now Westlands wants everyone to come to the table and be reasonable.
    How can Westlands change their image when they were so complicit?

    Reply
  3. J Platt

    When 80% of California’s water is flushed out to sea through poor decision-making, who is to blame? Farmers for farming or environmentalists for actually squandering precious resources?

    Reply

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