Long-serving, controversial manager of Westlands Water District resigns

November 23, 2022
by Lois Henry
Tom Birmingham, General Manager of Westlands Water District, is resigning as of Dec. 31. SOURCE: California State University, Fresno
Lois Henry

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Longtime Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham announced Nov. 23 that he will retire as of Dec. 31.

“I am retiring with extreme pride in the things Westlands had accomplished over the last two decades,” he wrote in an email announcement.

Birmingham had faced the likelihood that a newly-elected majority on the Westlands board was poised to replace him after the new members were seated on Dec. 2.

Instead, he will step down from the district he has served for more than 36 years, according to a Westlands announcement.

It’s anticipated that Birmingham will take with him a healthy severance of at least $664,000.

In 2020, Birmingham earned $442,196 in pay and $55,633 in benefits for a total package of $497,892, according to Transparent California, a website that tracks public employee compensation.

Per his contract, he is to receive a severance based on his monthly salary multiplied by the months left in his term. In Dec. 2021, the Westlands board renewed his contract, a full year before it was set to expire, through November 2024.

That contract renewal was a major bone of contention among Westlands’ growers who had become increasingly frustrated with Birmingham’s management style and focus in recent years.

Growers said they felt new ideas for regionalizing water supplies were ignored by Westlands’ management and that Birmingham continued to focus on litigation and legislation as opposed to collaboration with other districts and community groups.

Frustrated growers formed a coalition that successfully ran a slate of candidates in the recent election giving the “change” group a five-member majority on the nine-member board.

And they made no secret of their desire to replace Birmingham.

“A change in leadership is foundational,” said Sarah Woolf, who once served on the Westlands board and who helped organize the “change” coalition.

Beyond that, the group had four main goals:

  • Urgently developing more groundwater recharge.
  • Providing growers with clear and consistent pumping regulations.
  • Developing a plan that incentivizes farming alternatives.
  • Improving relations with other water districts, disadvantaged communities, environmental and drinking water advocacy groups.

Birmingham had overseen Westlands during a time of significant change in California’s water world, including greater restrictions on exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which Westlands relies on almost exclusively.

The water world became even more complicated under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which will force restrictions on groundwater pumping.

The district’s slow and less-than-innovative response to SGMA was a major impetus for Westlands’ growers to take action, according to Woolf.

The new board is expected to appoint an interim general manager and begin the search for a permanent replacement after they are sworn in next month, Woolf said.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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