Divisions are deepening within the giant Westlands Water District as some growers fear the district’s longtime, controversial general manager is amassing too much power.
In mid-February, district staff proposed new groundwater rules that would give General Manager Tom Birmingham almost total control over how groundwater is accounted for and to which grower accounts it would be credited, according to district growers.
It was a move that shocked some and prompted a group of growers to send letters to the district opposing the rules and demanding fair governance. They say giving that much power to one staff person creates a situation ripe for favoritism and abuse.
“(Birmingham is) a very controversial person to start with and he has a history of, I’ll say it, abusing his power, his authority,” said a district grower who requested anonymity due to the sensitive political nature of the issue. “We have big growers, we have little growers, everybody in between and a lot of people are frustrated.”
Westlands is the largest agricultural water district in the country and covers more than 600,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley from south of Firebaugh to just north of Kettleman City.
According to the grower letters sent to Westlands Feb. 14 and 22, under the proposed new rules Birmingham could single handedly approve or deny groundwater credit transfers, groundwater carryover credits, the amount of credits issued for recharge, the amount of pumping allowed in subsidence-prone areas and which part of the aquifer gets water credits.
These rules, and how they’re applied, are critically important as water districts and farmers struggle to comply with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires overdrafted aquifers come into balance by 2040. Generally, that means more water shouldn’t be pumped out than goes back in.
“As SGMA implementation continues, it is up to the groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) boards how projects and programs are developed and managed,” wrote a spokesperson for the Department of Water Resources, in an email. “Since these are new and developing types of programs, we can anticipate that once programs are set up, more of these types of authorities can be deferred to General Managers or other delegates.
“Delegating these authorities, however, should be discussed and voted on in a public forum, and discussion should also be included in the groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) and GSP updates.”
Aside from this dustup over groundwater accounting rules, growers have also knocked Westlands and Birmingham for not being proactive enough on creating more recharge programs to grab water in flush years and pack it underground, nor in coming up with creative solutions to SGMA in general.
“(Board members) are not making the hard decisions,” the grower who spoke anonymously said. “They’re just punting. That’s not going to fly.”
Some Westlands directors are trying to make changes but Birmingham usually has a majority of directors on his side, the grower said.
That was on display in December of 2021 when the board voted 8-1 to extend Birmingham’s contract for another three years, one year before the contract expired, despite heated opposition from some growers in attendance. The board did the same thing in 2015. Birmingham has been the general manager of Westlands since 2000.
When asked for comment about the letters and grower concerns over the groundwater crediting proposal, a Westlands spokesperson confirmed via email that staff had received the letters.
“Through the public processes that all public agencies must follow, the Board will consider the comments in the letters, along with all other public comments received,” wrote the spokesperson.
Despite assurances of transparency, some growers were still confused about Westlands’ direction.
“For one of the largest districts, I feel that we should be kind of at the forefront with policy. And there hasn’t been much specific direction or parameters put in place,” said Rebecca Kaser, a grower in Westlands. “So there’s a lot of uncertainty between the water users and growers onto what SGMA implementation is going to look like.”
The Westlands groundwater sustainability plan was deemed “incomplete” by the state Department of Water Resources in January. The district must correct deficiencies and resubmit its plan by this July.
Kaser oversees about 1,100 acres of almonds and pistachios. She’s been preparing for groundwater restrictions since 2014 when SGMA was passed and has been cutting back on acreage and water usage. Only about 620 acres of her land is in production right now. The rest has been fallowed.
Kaser said she and other growers have tried to initiate aquifer recharge projects within Westlands. But the district has pushed back and has made developing recharge projects difficult, she said.
The prospect of Birmingham taking total control of groundwater accounting and transfers makes Kaser uneasy.
Some growers think there should be committees formed to help sort out the rules and regulations.
That would be better than, “knighting somebody to be, for lack of a better term, the benevolent dictator,” said Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming. “It just seems like there should be better governance than that.”
The proposed rules have not yet been voted on. That will likely happen at an upcoming board meeting although the date has not been confirmed.
Meanwhile, the concerned Westlands growers are also looking further down the road to November when four of the nine director seats will be up for election.