One of the world’s most productive agricultural districts is under new leadership and plotting a course through a more turbulent water future—balancing wild swings in federal allocations while drastically cutting groundwater pumping. For each new tool it takes on, however, the Westlands Water District finds more obstacles and more need for urgent state action.

Longtime General Manager Tom Birmingham retired from the Westlands Water District last year following a shakeup in the board. This month the district is losing Jon Rubin, the assistant general manager and general counsel.

Birmingham grew a stern reputation from decades of legal and policy battles with environmental groups, from the district’s efforts to raise Shasta Dam and its reservoir capacity to protecting agricultural water supplies funneling through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Westlands continues to fend off allegations of ethical violations after then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt approved its application for a permanent federal water contract during the Trump administration. Westlands was one of Bernhardt’s lobbying clients before he took office. Last month a California appeals court ruled in favor of environmental groups in a case concerning the contract, which tribes and sportfishing groups decried as “a sweetheart deal.” The appellate judge reasoned the contract could not be validated since it was missing critical financial information. The district has been operating under the contract for three years and assured its farmers that the ruling does not invalidate it.

In January the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General cleared Bernhardt of violating rules on ethics and conflicts of interest, reasoning the district is a state agency and not considered a former client.

The new board has been seeking more collaborative and innovative solutions to the district’s water challenges, with groundwater recharge a top priority. In March, the district hired Allison Febbo to replace Birmingham. A hydrologist with experience at the Bureau of Reclamation and the State Water Contractors, Febbo led the Mojave Water Agency in its transition under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The high-desert basin was in adjudication before the Legislature passed SGMA in 2014, and its glide path strategy for ramping down groundwater pumping has servedas a model for the Westlands Water District. Alfalfa, often maligned in the West as a water-intensive crop, has disappeared in the basin, with farmers adjusting to the change gradually over time, according to Febbo.

Westlands has already spent decades repurposing farmland after environmental challenges, setting aside thousands of acres for wetland restoration.

The Department of Water Resources approved in March the district’s groundwater sustainability plan (GSP), which relies on a similar glide path to Mojave’s. Under the plan, farmers must cut their pumping in more than half by 2030, from the current 1.3 acre-feet per acre to .6 acre-feet. On the surface water side, Reclamation zeroed out Westlands’ allocation for the Central Valley Project at the height of the drought last year and then flipped it to a full allocation this year following record precipitation over the winter. The district has scrambled to capture as much of the excess flows as possible, setting a goal of recharging 127,000 acre-feet by next February. It cleared the halfway mark earlier this month.

During a panel discussion at an event in Fresno last week hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Febbo explained how Westlands has seen success in its transition but is also eyeing a few roadblocks ahead.

Allison FebboAllison Febbo, Westlands Water District (photo: Jerry Kelly/JKP Photography)

“We've had a board who's been progressive in looking at how we can manage our lands so that we manage our own reliability and take the future into our hands,” said Febbo. “We understand that to be able to really have sustainable ag, we need to have that sized in the right way.”

She expects the cuts to groundwater pumping to deliver more credits for farmers who use less water and drive a market for water trading, though the water must stay within the district. For several years, Westlands has allowed growers to fallow half their acreage and apply the saved water to the remaining irrigated land. The district has now removed the 50% provision to allow for more flexibility for each location and situation.

Febbo and the board are crafting “a master plan” to connect those parcels to build larger solar development projects. She estimates as many as 125,000 acres will be converted for solar generation, contributing to a portion of the state’s renewable energy goals. Senate Bill 100 in 2018 set a target of achieving 100% clean energy and carbon neutrality by 2045.

Yet Christina Beckstead, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, pointed out that utilities are warning that food and agriculture facilities must wait 10 years just to get the connections for meeting the current energy needs, without scaling up to meet the tremendous charging needs ahead for zero-emission equipment and vehicles.

“They don't even have the ability to think to the future, because we don't have enough in place from an energy standpoint right now,” said Beckstead.

Febbo acknowledged that the biggest unknown and a major risk in scaling up solar is getting the transmission lines installed and moving those roadblocks out of the way.

“We need state leadership,” said Febbo. “Like you said, 10 years is not going to do it for us. We need something much faster.”

With so many proposals floated for solar projects throughout the Central Valley, she estimated nine out of 10 cannot happen due to connectivity issues. Erica Brand, project manager of land use and infrastructure policy at the California Energy Commission, assured Beckstead the commission is trying to pinpoint the barriers. But she admitted that many more obstacles stand in the way of the transition.

Febbo added that a new state program for repurposing fallowed farmland has been an important component. The district has received a $9 million block grant, allowing it to turn some lands into non-irrigated rangeland or dryland farming. Through the LandFlex Program, DWR has granted Westlands $4 million to pay farmers not to pump when sensitive drinking water wells are nearby. The administration is also supporting a pilot project in the district to desalinate brackish groundwater to boost the supply.

With dust a significant problem in the San Joaquin Valley, Westlands is using some of the money to examine the potential for agrivoltaics, growing low-water crops around the panels.

Febbo said the district has been reaching out to local communities for their thoughts on both the land and their financial future.

“In reducing our irrigable acres, we're reducing farm jobs,” she said. “We need to do some workforce training to make sure we're able to support the communities, give people hope for their future and maintain the economy of our areas.”

A study commissioned by the district this year showed that it contributes $4.7 billion annually to local and regional economies, along with 35,000 jobs. The district produces 3.5% of the nation’s fruits and nuts and about 5% of the vegetables and melons.

“This agricultural enterprise really dominates the local economy,” said Michael Shires, who led the study and is an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “There are communities who owe their entire existence to this kind of activity.”

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In a press conference last March, Shires pointed out that the region is among California’s poorest, with nearly 17% of Fresno County below the federal poverty line. The availability of water “trends exactly” with changes in poverty.

The heavy reliance on agriculture in the region has led to criticism from farm groups over PPIC research into repurposing farmland, with concerns that the institute is raising the visibility for such projects and leading policymakers to propose new regulations based on early findings. Echoing that sentiment was Ralph Pistoresi, who has been farming in Madera County for about 55 years. He took aim at a PPIC study on expanding the use of dryland farming in areas losing water under SGMA.

“You're using terms that you don't understand the consequences of,” said Pistoresi. “Dryland farming is putting a seed in dry ground and praying it's going to rain enough to make a crop.”

He worried about consumers who rely on California staples like melons and almonds, arguing “unless they eat oat hay or chew on a solar panel, they’re not going to be happy.”

In response, Caitlin Peterson, an agroecologist at the PPIC Water Policy Center and lead author on the report, emphasized that no one’s first choice is to plant dryland oats or wheat instead of fruits and nuts, explaining that it would be for land with no other options.

Frustrations also arose from Scott Hamilton, who chairs the technical committee for the Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley, a diverse coalition pushing state leaders on a portfolio approach to water infrastructure investment.

“It's always bothered me that land repurposing was the first option that everybody went to, rather than the last option,” said Hamilton. “It seemed to me that DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board, in [reviewing] all of the groundwater sustainability plans, focused on what was not in the plans, rather than what was in the plans.”

He estimated that at least a million acre-feet of water on average is not captured from the valley’s east side rivers, with far more available this year. Hundreds of projects proposed in GSPs could capture much of that floodwater, he said. But the local groundwater agencies face difficulties in accessing grants to finance them—while the California Department of Conservation spends millions on taking land out of production to repurpose for ecosystem restoration or other purposes, he argued.

Peterson responded that even finding anther million acre-feet would not be enough to prevent some land from going out of production—and “we have to be thoughtful about what's going to happen to that land.” Febbo stressed she is still hopeful that new infrastructure projects can restore some of the water supply and bring a portion of the land back into irrigation.

“We're not closing the door. Repurposing isn't forever,” she said. “But this is a way to adapt and be able to use what we have now.”

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