No one likes large unpredictable actors.

I was pretty surprised to see that Westlands quit ACWA. I didn’t know what to make of the first reason they gave:

Spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said Westlands quit the Association of California Water Agencies because of budget priorities. Its ACWA membership cost about $19,000 a year, she said.

Westlands, the nation’s largest farm irrigation district, is engaged in a number of high-profile lawsuits against wildlife protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It is choosing to focus on those efforts, Woolf said.

“We just have to be very strategic on where we put our resources right now,” she said. “We are in a lot of court cases and that’s not cheap.”

One must have priorities, but what does it say about the district that they’d rather apply their money to suing than being a member of the predominant association of water agencies? (To me, it says that they don’t think they have allies, and that they think that being adversarial in court is their best remaining option.) Second, things are so tight that they can’t scrape together an additional $20K? Really? If that’s the case, that’s interesting. I don’t have the faintest idea about the internal budgeting of Westlands (although I have the vague idea that a water district’s budget is public information, so I suppose someone could get it). I’d imagine it to be in the millions, and don’t expect that the big name upper managers come cheap. So I’m surprised to hear that they’re at the point that they don’t have $20K to be part of the most mainstream, established water agency association. Are they just done with the public perception of legitimacy? They’re past it, they don’t care?

I’m afraid that is what has happened. You know, Westlands wasn’t always like this. There was a time in the late 80’s, early 90’s, when they were one of the most progressive water districts in the Valley. They were atoning for Kesterson, and they hired great people to do (at the time) very advanced water conservation and irrigation efficiency stuff. They had one of the first and best water management plans of the CVP contractors. Then the board turned, and they hired an aggressive lawyer to be their GM. Fifteen years later, I think we’re seeing the end stages of an isolationist policy. Now we know. It takes about 15-20 years (and the beginnings of climate change) for an insular, adversarial approach to run a district into the ground.

We’ve seen this before, when a group of (mostly) smart people turns inward and stops hearing outside, critical voices. (I think that brought down CALFED, for example.) The inside people stop being capable of realistically evaluating the world. They only talk to each other, and always agree with how clever they are. They double down where they should retreat, and wonder why everyone else doesn’t understand. But something has clearly gone wrong inside Westlands. They have no internal regulator anymore, so they’re just baffling to the rest of us. Remember about two years ago, when they were bargaining for what they could get in exchange for building the San Luis drain themselves? And the first thing they asked for was fee simple ownership of Los Banos reservoir and all the plumbing on the west side? Did they have no idea how that would look to everyone else? Did they think it was remotely possible? Or this bid with Sen. Feinstein? In the middle of everything going on this year, and fading hopes for passing the bond, they overreach with this crude and infuriating “jobs” rider? Now they’re quitting ACWA? One of the few avenues for a mainstream, compromising voice to reach into the district, and they quit it? This is a feedback loop, in which they get more isolated, more extreme, and more sure of themselves because they hear no objections.

I’m not on the ground in Westlands, so I have no idea if people there are self-aware enough to recognize the problem or if there is momentum building for a change in how the district engages (and shuts itself off from) the world. It is a problem for us because they’re running amok. But in the end, their isolation, absolutism and adversarial approach will hurt them most.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “No one likes large unpredictable actors.

  1. Mr. Kurtz

    This isn’t exactly on point, but your comments about isolation hit the mark. I am always puzzled when the sentimentalists (almost all urban, self appointed experts on farming) complain about “absentee” farmers who do not toil perpetually on the land they own. Don’t they realize that the “Real McCoy” fantasy they idealize is exactly what agriculture does *not* need? A bunch of isolated old coots at the coffee shop have no concept of changes in consumer tastes, changes in social mores, or new attitudes about water and the environment.
    The Westlands folks are certainly not a band of clueless rustics; I’m not sure quite where their circle the wagons mentality seems to come from. They don’t have many options, though. They have their backs to the wall, and such a position rarely leads to thoughtful actions.

  2. Curious Reader

    “Westlands is “a coyote with its leg in a steel-jawed trap,” says Jason Peltier, the district’s chief deputy manager. “Short-term, we’re going to pursue every right and legal avenue we have to protect ourselves.””

  3. onthepublicrecord

    I’ve heard him give exactly that quote. I have the same difficulty with it that I do with the metaphors I discussed below.

  4. onthepublicrecord

    I mean, if they want to talk about their trapped-foxness, and how it justifies any sort of action, well there’s nothing to stop them. But they aren’t trapped wild animals. It’d be nice if they thought of themselves as an assortment of sophisticated businesses that need to make difficult decisions about increasing water scarcity and stranded capital.

  5. onthepublicrecord

    The farms in Dudley Ridge are in the same situation as Westlands, in terms of water supply reliability. But you don’t see them running around talking about legs in traps. You see them selling out for tens of millions of dollars.

  6. Mr. Kurtz

    You’re right about Dudley Ridge. The ground there is not as good as Westlands, however; and their costs are even higher since it’s SWP, not Federal water. Yet when someone down there like Sandridge bails out and sells their water to another user, some people give them unholy hell. I’m puzzled. Seems farmers who took the bait for the CVP/SWP can’t win with either strategy.

  7. Meanwhile a divorce of a different sort is taking place among Santa Barbara water agencies.

    http://www.independent.com/news/2010/feb/25/whale-tagging-dog/

  8. Yes, this story sounds so similar to a water agency with which I am intimately familiar… Isolationist? Defensive? It’s sad, after decades of having “collaborative planning” pounded over the heads of natural resource managers, that it still hasn’t sunk in. I realize that there are a myriad of reasons for this, but it’s impossible to argue that looking out, instead of collapsing in, is a better solution.