How California’s drought upended a powerful farming district
For years, Westlands Water District fought for endless supplies of water — until the water started running out.
Late in the afternoon on Nov. 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 the leaders of Westlands “were pretty entrenched in adversarial decision making. It was us versus them, and we were going to win and they were going to lose.”
The email, however, revealed that the old guard at Westlands had been swept aside in voting for board seats at the farmer-run organization. The winning candidates, part of a self-described Change Coalition, are demanding that the district spend less time fighting legal and political battles and more time figuring out ways to live with less water. Birmingham, an imperious figure who has run Westlands for more than 20 years, 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 — the biggest single 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.
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Sarah Woolf, one of the new guard, 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, and runs 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.”
To understand what she wanted to change, you have to go back in time to the 1950s and 1960s. The farmers who’d been growing food on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley needed water. There are no big rivers on this side of the valley; 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 Kennedy himself showed up for the groundbreaking. 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. This law limited deliveries of water 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.
This law, 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 that cooperation was the only solution and urged Westlands to stop pushing legislation “that was only beneficial to us.”
In 2012, after she 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.
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.
But 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 herself.
There’s a range of views within the Change Coalition about what exactly they’d like to accomplish. Justin Diener 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.
If the most recent decade is a guide to the future, he 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 percent 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. That’s 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.
Sarah Woolf has an example. On some Woolf family land just southeast of the city of Huron, a line of trees alongside the fields marks the course of a dry creek bed. When it rains, that creek bed fills with runoff from foothills to the west. Occasionally, every half-dozen years or so, it floods.
The creek’s natural course is blocked by a giant canal, part of the Central Valley Project, so floodwater spills across a floodplain. Because built-up silt prevents it from percolating into the earth, much of it simply evaporates.
The Woolfs and other neighboring landowners have now built a system to capture and store that water. When the next flood comes, they’ll divert that 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 won’t bring back the old days, of course. It can ease the pain during drought, but it also means that growers can’t expand their fields when water is plentiful. They’ll have to restrain themselves, keeping land fallow, allowing that water to soak into the ground so it’s there when they truly need it.
Sarah 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. This shift in approach is already underway at the San Joaquin Valley Collaborative Action Program, formed in 2020. It brings together farmers, advocates for safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities, local governments, water agencies, and environmentalists. Westlands is not participating, but Sarah Woolf and Jon Reiter are.
“I spent much of my career in the San Joaquin Valley watching [these groups] fight with each other,” says Tim 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.”
A few weeks ago, the group 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, including 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, collaboration of this sort 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.
He’s had very little contact with Westlands and never met Tom Birmingham. Most of the landowners of Westlands don’t live nearby, on the land that they farm, but in Fresno, 30 or more miles away. Yet the fate of Huron’s residents has long been linked to decisions that those 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. Instead they are growing almonds that are harvested by machine. If there’s another shift, this time from agriculture to, say, solar farms, León wants local 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.
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 seats up for grabs. Together with two allies already on the nine-member board, it gives them a majority. A week after the election results were announced, Tom 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 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.”
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