For some reason, I find myself called to write about Westlands Water District today. You may have seen that in 2007 WWD gave a former deputy manager a personal loan of $1.4M at 0.84%, and hasn’t seen the need to be repaid for that loan yet. One and a half million dollars would buy a whole lot of house in Cantua Creek City or Three Rocks, although we know that Mr. Peltier, gritty man of agriculture, chose to buy a lot of house in Walnut Grove instead. It doesn’t appear that WWD properly disclosed the loan, but we’re used to WWD defying disclosure rules. So we will skip over petty, small-minded, literalist discussions of fraud, perjury, and fiduciary misbehavior. Why linger on ugly details? Instead, let’s talk about money, power and dominance.
NOTE: For the discussion below, I am talking about public perception within the water field. I am not an insider at any of the districts I’m about to discuss. I don’t know any of the managers or staff personally; I haven’t been introduced to them, even. I am asserting what I believe to be the mainstream opinion of water professionals.
Westlands is widely described as “powerful”. Their managers worked at high levels in George Bush’s administration; when the Bush administration ended, WWD was there to hire all the influence it could. Westlands maintains a stable of lobbyists, and funds faux-grass roots public information campaigns. Westlands makes extensive political donations. Their ability to be heard in Washington is reflected in the unfortunate deal Pres. Obama’s Interior Department made.
But when I look at that list, the thought that keeps coming back to me is that Westlands Water District is bleeding money. For all of that talk of power, they have to pay and pay and pay to maintain it. They aren’t buying particularly good power, either. Their purchases aren’t buying any popular support, good press, any diversity of friendships, good access to Gov. Brown’s administration. It isn’t buying them the prudent anonymity of the other west side districts that never show up in the press. Their power isn’t winning them state grants or other incoming money. They just pay out the ass for their manager dudes to talk to like-minded political dudes in Washington.
I want to contrast that with the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. A check tells me that they do hire lobbyists, but I’ve never heard of SAWPA being described as inherently powerful. What I do know about them is that they rake in money. They get grants. They are named recipients in (attempted) bond measures. They win awards. So which is the powerful agency here? The widely disliked one that bleeds money for political access? Or the friendly one that sweetly and relentlessly brings in money?
Which brings me to the approaches used by the two agencies. Westlands Water District is going for dominance. They have chosen to buy the influence to force their agenda through in political capitols. They are also, frankly, powerful male assholes talking to other powerful male assholes. When I’ve seen them at conferences, they schmooze with the big boys. SAWPA’s approach is collaboration, written all over their front page. I haven’t participated in their processes, so I can’t tell you how deep that runs. But when I see their managers at conferences, they talk to all comers. Scared young brown student at their first conference? They’re welcoming. They naturally catch up with their (male and female) friends and colleagues from over the years. By all appearances, they are friendly and broadly engaged. Which means that when politics is giving out money, they don’t have to buy as much access or fake public support.
Westlands WD’s power is naturally limited to the total political power of like-minded politicians, which ebbs and flows and can be blocked by opposing political groups. It is also amazingly expensive. Mr. Peltier’s loan alone cost Westlands’ farmers about $2.5/irrigated acre in 2007. The power of a collaborative approach is limited by the friends the members of SAWPA can make, and it brings in money. If Westlands stops buying access, what other kinds of power would it have left? If SAWPA stopped paying lobbyists, what other kinds of power would it have left?