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Some of America's biggest vegetable growers fought for water. Then the water ran out

Water scarcity in Westlands Water District has caused some almond growers to tear out their older orchards.
Dan Charles
Water scarcity in Westlands Water District has caused some almond growers to tear out their older orchards.

Late in the afternoon on November 14, a historic email landed in the inboxes of hundreds of California farmers whose land lies within the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural irrigation agency in the country – and one of the most controversial.

For decades, Westlands has led the fight against environmental rules that restrict the flow of water from California's rivers to its farmers. It sued the government, lobbied friendly politicians, and took on critics wherever it found them, even in Congress. "Where's the outrage, that government decisions have created zero water supplies for communities in the San Joaquin Valley?" Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham admonished a congressional committee in 2016.

Tim Quinn, former executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, says Birmingham and members of the Westlands governing board "were pretty entrenched in adversarial decision making. It was us versus them, and we were going to win and they were going to lose."

That November email, however, revealed an unprecedented power shift at Westlands. In an election for the organization's nine-member board, candidates from a self-described Change Coalition had won all four open seats. The winning candidates are calling on the district to spend less time fighting legal and political battles and more time figuring out ways to live with less water. It amounted to a repudiation of Birmingham, an imperious figure who has run Westlands for more than 20 years. Birmingham later announced he'll retire at the end of the year.

The vote is a sign that even in the most conservative parts of California's Central Valley, home to the biggest source of America's fresh produce, attitudes are shifting. Farmers are coming to terms with the fact that their operations will have to change — and in many areas, shrink — to survive chronic drought, depleted aquifers and climate change.

A legacy of political power

Sarah Woolf is an unlikely rebel. She grew up in a farming family just outside the boundary of Westlands Water District, then married into another one — the Woolfs, who run one of the biggest farming operations in the district. She became an expert on water policy while working for a California congressman, then started her own consulting business, Water Wise.

More than anyone else, she catalyzed the movement for change at Westlands. "I just didn't feel that it was appropriate to go along to get along," she says. "We weren't making positive strides."

Sarah Woolf, a farmer who was fed up with the adversarial approach of Westlands, pushed for change.
/ Dan Charles
Dan Charles
Sarah Woolf, a farmer who was fed up with the adversarial approach of Westlands, pushed for change.

To understand what she wanted to change, you have to go back to the 1950s and 1960s. Farmers needed water to grow food on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley but there are no big rivers; growers relied instead on deep wells drilled into aquifers. But that underground reservoir wouldn't last long, and everyone knew it.

The farmers and their backers got the federal government to build a new dam and canal that connected their land to the system of dams and aqueducts known as the Central Valley Project. President John F. Kennedy himself showed up for the groundbreaking. "It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help blow up this valley in the cause of progress," he joked to the crowd.

The new canal delivered water from dams hundreds of miles to the north, like Shasta and Trinity. Westlands Water District was formed to distribute that water to 600,000 acres of land. Mark Arax, a writer who has chronicled the rise of Central Valley agriculture, calls it an act of "pure political power."

"We had a fair amount of clout, legislatively," Woolf says. "We were a very rich district; we had politically active landowners. We hired very talented lobbyists." The 700 or so farms within Westlands are mostly large, high-tech operations.

In 1992, though, Westlands met the limits of its power. Over its protests, Congress enacted the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. The law limited water deliveries to farmers when this could threaten the survival of wildlife, such as fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — the sprawling network of waterways that empties into the San Francisco Bay.

The act, together with rulings from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cut the flow of water to Westlands dramatically during years of drought. Some years, the growers got no water at all. They were shocked and furious.

"The district's approach was to fight it. Tooth and nail," Woolf says. "They hired the best attorneys. They hired the best lobbyists." Their approach, she says, was simple: "We will fight this and we will win because we are right."

Yet Woolf grew increasingly convinced that this battle was futile. Farmers were up against too many other powerful interests. She decided cooperation was the only solution and urged Westlands to stop pushing legislation "that was only beneficial to us."

In 2012, after Woolf was appointed to a vacant seat on the Westlands board, she tried unsuccessfully to get Westlands to sit down with other groups, including environmentalists, to explore possible compromises. She ended up butting heads with Tom Birmingham, partly over policies and partly over Birmingham's personal style. "He's an authoritarian, even a dictator," Woolf says with a laugh. "It's his show." Birmingham declined to be interviewed for this story.

The San Luis Canal delivers water from northern California to Westlands Water District, but it has delivered none during the past two years.
/ Dan Charles
Dan Charles
The San Luis Canal delivers water from northern California to Westlands Water District, but it has delivered none during the past two years.

In 2018, Woolf resigned from the Westlands board with a public letter of protest. She wrote that her efforts to "direct our district in a more collaborative and progressive direction" had met stubborn resistance.

Then, other farmers started reaching out to her. They were increasingly worried. Drought was becoming more frequent. In four of the past nine years, Westlands has received no water at all from the Central Valley Project.

Westlands farmers had stayed in business by pumping enormous amounts of groundwater from shrinking aquifers. But a new California law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, will severely restrict their ability to do this.

"I think this farming community is really struggling at this point," says Justin Diener, whose family grows vegetables and almonds near Five Points. "There are a lot of people who are kind of looking at the walls, wondering what they are going to do."

"I sat down with many of (the growers), gave them the history of what I had seen, and they started attending meetings," Woolf says. "They started being challenged by the general manager when they would ask questions. And then they got riled up and upset. And we made it clear, if you want to make a change, you have to get on the board and do something."

Earlier this year, dissident farmers named themselves the Change Coalition for Westlands Landowners, and settled on four candidates to run for the board. Diener was one of them. Woolf worked behind the scenes, but chose not to run.

Storing water underground

There's a range of views within the Change Coalition about what exactly they'd like to accomplish. Diener, who was elected in November, wants a realistic plan to survive. With climate change, droughts are persisting longer. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is melting faster. Future floods may be more intense.

Justin Diener is one of the newly elected members of the Westlands Water District board.
/ Dan Charles
Dan Charles
Justin Diener is one of the newly elected members of the Westlands Water District board.

If the most recent decade is a guide to the future, Diener says, the district can only expect to receive enough water to grow crops on about 300,000 acres in an average year. That's half the original area of Westlands Water District, and 40% less than what's available to grow crops today.

What's worse, the water comes in bursts. In 2017, when rain drenched California, Westlands actually turned away potential water deliveries because no growers wanted it. Other years, the district gets no water at all, except for what it can buy on the open market at exorbitant prices. Such drastic fluctuations in water availability have been especially tough on growers with almond trees that require water every year just to stay alive. Growers now are ripping out some of those parched orchards.

What's urgently needed, according to Diener and other growers, is the infrastructure to store water underground when it's abundant, so that it's available when the rains stop.

An example: On Woolf family land southeast of the city of Huron, there's a dry creek bed that fills with water when it rains. Every half-dozen years or so, it floods, and because the creek's natural course is blocked, floodwater spills across a floodplain. A layer of silt, built up from years of floods, prevents the water from percolating into the earth, so much of it evaporates.

The Woolfs and neighboring landowners have now built a system to capture and store that water. When the next flood comes, they'll divert the water to a field where it will soak into the ground, all the way down to the aquifer. Farmers — and the nearby city of Huron — will be able to pump that water from their wells.

Westlands should be doing much more of this, Woolf says. Other water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley certainly are. But Westlands has lagged behind. "That's a lack of vision, and a lack of focus on things that we can control," says Jon Reiter, a farmer and consultant who works with Westlands growers. Instead, Westlands focused "on things that we can't control," like decisions by courts and Congress, he says.

Replenishing the aquifers during periodic storms can ease the pain during drought, but it also means growers can't expand their fields when water is plentiful. They'll have to restrain themselves, keeping land fallow, allowing water to soak into the ground so it's there when they truly need it.

Talking with adversaries

Woolf, meanwhile, wants Westlands to be a better neighbor. "What we do is important; growing food is important, it's something to be proud of," she says. "But if we're just fighting with people, I'm not very proud of that." The fighting, she says, blocks discussions — and potentially, compromises — between farmers and other groups with their own claims on California's water.

Such discussions among adversaries are underway in the San Joaquin Valley Collaborative Action Program (CAP), which formed in 2020. It's a forum that brings together farmers, advocates for safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities, local governments, water agencies, and environmentalists. Westlands is not participating, but Woolf and Reiter are.

"I spent much of my career in the San Joaquin Valley watching [these groups] fight with each other," says Quinn, now a visiting fellow at Stanford University's program on Water in the West, who helped launch the group. "I wasn't really convinced that they were ready for the kind of collaboration that I thought was necessary. And turns out, by God, they were."

The group this fall released its goals, which include safe drinking water for communities that don't have it now, better management of water for agriculture, and coordinated shifts in the use of land. That includes converting some previously irrigated farmland into habitat for wildlife. "That's the future," says Quinn. "You can't make progress in 21st century California without adopting a collaborative approach."

For Westlands, such collaboration might mean working with Rey León, the mayor of the mostly Latino town of Huron, in the heart of the Westlands Water District. He's launched efforts to plant trees, reuse wastewater, share electric cars, and build bike lanes.

Rey León is the activist mayor of the town of Huron, which is in the heart of the Westlands Water District.
/ Dan Charles
Dan Charles
Rey León is the activist mayor of the town of Huron, which is in the heart of the Westlands Water District.

He's had very little contact with Westlands and never met Tom Birmingham, the water district's general manager for the past two decades. Most landowners of Westlands don't live nearby, on the land they farm, but in Fresno, 30 or more miles away. Yet the fate of Huron's residents has long been linked to decisions that Westlands landowners make about water and farming.

Farmworkers no longer crowd the town at harvest time, since many growers switched from vegetables that require hand labor to almonds that are harvested by machine. If there's another shift, this time from agriculture to, say, solar farms, León wants Huron residents to get access to those jobs. "We have to be innovative, and develop new models of collaboration, because they haven't existed in the past," he says.

Change wins

In October, a month before the Westlands board election, the candidates who were running as the Change Coalition laid out their priorities in a letter to Westlands landowners. They proposed storing more water underground, relying less on "legal and political solutions" to the district's water problems. They also advocated developing a long-term plan for the district's land that includes other uses, such as solar farms and wildlife habitat, and improving relationships with "moderate environmental groups, disadvantaged communities, and safe drinking water advocates."

The Change Coalition candidates won all four open seats. Together with two allies already on the nine-member board, they appear to have a working majority. A week after the election results were announced, Birmingham announced he'd be stepping down.

Dan Errotabere, a retiring member of the board who supported Birmingham, is skeptical that the new board members really will do anything different, or better, than their predecessors. He says he examined the Change Coalition's program and "there's nothing that we're not doing. We are doing all those things. I think they'll recognize that, when they get on the board, and they see all the fine details."

But Quinn calls the Westlands transition a "sea change." Mark Arax, the author, says it's a historic step for the leaders of Westlands to accept the fact that water is scarce, and that their farms will have to shrink. "I don't think that's window dressing," he says. "I think it's a real change, and if that's acknowledged, that's a big story. Westlands, this behemoth, has cut itself in half."

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.