Farmers Try Political Force to Twist Open California's Taps

Article by Michael Wines and Jennifer MedinaDecember 30, 2015

Maria Salazar, right, shopped at a yard sale held by Selena Rodriguez, left, at an apartment complex in Huron, Calif., near farmland that is part of the Westlands Water District. CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

FIVE POINTS, Calif. — The message that Maria L. Gutierrez gave legislators on Capitol Hill was anguished and blunt: California’s historic drought had not merely left farmland idle. It had destroyed Latino farm workers’ jobs, shuttered Latino businesses and thrown Latino families on the street. Yet Congress had turned a deaf ear to their pleas for more water to revive farming and farm labor.

So Latinos — the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, she noted pointedly — were sending a warning that politicians could not ignore.

“We created an organization that’s called El Agua Es Asunto de Todos — Water Is Everybody’s Business — so the Latino voice can be heard,” Ms. Gutierrez, who described herself as an El Agua volunteer, said in October 2013 at the meeting with lawmakers. “Don’t devastate our economy. Don’t take our jobs away.”

The group has since blanketed California with demands for more water on Spanish-language television, on the Internet, even on yard signs. But for whom it speaks is another matter: El Agua is bankrolled by more than $1.1 million from the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural irrigation contractor, a state entity created at the behest of — and largely controlled by — some of California’s wealthiest and most politically influential farmers.

For almost five decades, Westlands has brought its farmers a torrent of water from the reservoirs and aqueducts of the federal Central Valley Project, the vast public work that irrigates half of California agriculture. Drought has reduced that torrent to drops, and El Agua is one part of Westlands’ wide-ranging effort to open the spigots again.

The main intersection of Five Points, a farming town in the district. CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

California has more than 81,000 farms, and farmers claim four-fifths of all the water its citizens consume. But no one in agriculture has shaped the debate over water more — or swung their elbows wider — than the few hundred owners of an arid, Rhode Island-size finger of farmland west of Fresno.

A water utility on paper, Westlands in practice is a formidable political force, a $100 million-a-year agency with five lobbying firms under contract in Washington and Sacramento, a staff peppered with former federal and congressional powers, a separate political action committee representing farmers and a government-and-public-relations budget that topped $950,000 last year. It is a financier and leading force for a band of 29 water districts that spent at least another $270,000 on lobbying last year. Its nine directors and their relatives gave at least $430,000 to federal candidates and the Republican Party in the last two election cycles, and the farmers’ political action committee gave more than $315,000 more.

Aggressive, creative and litigious — minutes of a board meeting this year cited 11 continuing or anticipated lawsuits — the district has made enemies of environmentalists, rival politicians and other farmers whose water it has tried to appropriate. But it has also repeatedly made deals and won legislative favors to keep water flowing to itself and to farms across the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland.

By the New York Times

California’s snowpack testing on Wednesday was more encouraging than last year, but officials were far from certain that the drought was ending. And the prolonged drought has laid bare the patchwork way water is parceled out.

Farmers here have become a target not just of city dwellers forced by conservation decrees to shorten showers and let their lawns go brown, but also of other farmers. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California this year, growers grudgingly cut production to free up water for Central Valley farms, driven less by charity than by fear that the state would demand even more water if they did not.

But while California’s farmers could conserve more — fewer than half use low-flow irrigation methods — the reality is more complex. Agriculture makes up just 2.2 percent of California’s economy, but this area remains the nation’s green grocer, and farming is still the economic lifeblood of the state’s arid center. Both locally and nationally, farmers pack a political punch well above their weight.

“The federal government’s involvement in water is more influenced by what goes on with Westlands than any other single entity,” said Daniel P. Beard, who was the commissioner of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation— the agency overseeing Western water — under President Bill Clinton. “They’re not wrapped around the axle on politics or ideology; they’re pragmatists. What they want is water, a continuation of the flow of money from agricultural programs, and more water.”

And for good reason. Since 2005, on average, Westlands farms have annually sopped up one and a half times as much water as all of Los Angeles, most of it — some years, almost all of it — from federal deliveries. The water, largely siphoned from the Sacramento River Basin in Northern California, fuels a prodigious harvest, reported to be more than $1.5 billion last year: almonds for export; tomatoes for paste and sauce; wine grapes; cotton; produce sold under labels like Heinz and Dole.

But as drought’s grip tightened, the Sacramento River Basin’s reservoirs ebbed and the district’s federal Central Valley Project water allotment dwindled to zero for the last two years. Farmers have turned to aquifers, pumping so much groundwater that in some places, desiccated fields have collapsed like fallen soufflés.

In turn, Westlands has redoubled efforts to increase its share of federal water. It wants new and bigger reservoirs to bolster Central Valley Project reserves. It is backing a much-disputed plan by Gov. Jerry Brown to bore two 35-mile tunnels that would shunt Sacramento River water directly to San Joaquin Valley farms.

But most of all, perhaps, it is seeking to persuade Congress to loosen the federal rules that now set aside Sacramento basin water for salmon fisheries and endangered species like the delta smelt. It is a cause that El Agua, the lobby group propped up by the district, has endorsed with enthusiasm. Thwarted this year, the water district will be battling over the same issue when Congress returns next year.