I wonder if Mr. Amaral rated a similar loan.

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?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “I wonder if Mr. Amaral rated a similar loan.

  1. That’s a curious thing you’ve done there, OPR, attempting to compare Westlands Water District to the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. There couldn’t be two more dissimilar water-concerned public entities in this state.

    Westlands as we all know is the ultimate swashbuckler of California public agencies. Not swashbucklers like the hapless folks of color in Bell, California where the officials were busted big time for their mendacity but all-white swashbucklers with middling accounting skills that lead to only a wrist-slap from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    The SAWPA is a totally legitimate organization of public agencies earnestly addressing well-defined watershed management challenges. Their goal, among other things, is to become water self-sufficient.

    Westlands is a political fluke, a one off freak of California politics – read about its tawdry origins here. Its business plan at this point is to bilk the American public by dead-beating its Central Valley Project debt and hoodwinking its supporters in Congress and the White House into granting it a significant chunk of the CVP’s yield to set it up in California’s emerging water arbitrage market.

    The best thing that could happen from the standpoint of fiscal equity and water conservation is if the Westlands Agreement now before Congress could somehow get derailed until the Hilary Clinton administration is seated next January. Westlands will have its usual contingent of pricey lobbyists in position to work the Clinton administration on its Agreement, as it did with the Bush Administration through Jason Peltier and others, and with the current administration. But the longer the Agreement is out there in the daylight the worse it will smell. With enough Californians saying ‘pee-yew’ we can hopefully come up with a plan for dealing with Westlands’ toxic badlands that doesn’t include gifting them with a huge chunk of federal Central Valley Project water – our water.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Thing is, Westlands didn’t have to be like this. After Kesterson, they were chastened and wrote one of the earliest, best ag water conservation plans. Then they hired Tom Birmingham, who changed their whole approach to “bullying asshole”, but even Westlands could have chosen environmentalism and collaboration. They could have gone the technology and enviro route. They know how; they did early interesting work on intra-district water marketing. They could have addressed selenium and applied for salt-management grants and transitioned land to solar power generation. If they had chosen a collaborative approach, now, twenty-five years later, I could be writing about the inspiring west side district that put together an enviro portfolio that also includes farming, solar power and work like the Grasslands Bypass Project.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Another thing that is clear to me is that the Almond Board is choosing the enviro/collaborative route. From the negative press that (I’m told) surprised them, they have clearly chosen to pursue every environmental angle they can find and are telling everyone they can about it. If they keep it up, they’re maybe ten years away from being beloved.

      I continue to think the Almond Board has an incredible mind (or few minds) somewhere guiding it. Their printed projects (like the almanac) and their results (taking almonds from nowhere in the mid-nineties to beloved snack now) are incredible. I would love to know who that is.

  2. Diane

    Let it rip, my friend! Love it!

  3. In a better world in which these farming corporations were operating sustainably with water that existed on their land I wouldn’t care about internal governance issues. But I know that other people wind up paying the price for the escapades of the Water Welfare Whiners.

    The power politics of the past have largely been neutralized in the present. It will be a huge lift for people in the North to co-operate in solutions for today thanks to the excesses of yesterday. No where is this more evident than in the continual bleating of CongressPoodles Nunes, McCarthy, Costa, and Valadao. All their rhetoric of entitlement accomplishes is to harden the resolve of NoCal to prevent any water infrastructure accomplishment.

  4. Minivet

    Very reminiscent of the Vox article on the softer political skills (which Hillary Clinton has) being devalued in the public eye in favor of manly speechifying.

    [ETA: This article.]

  5. Larry

    I once heard Jason Peltier advise hundreds of farmers at a conference to “just nuc your land from border to border and the endangered species problem goes away.” A perfect Westlands employee.

  6. Curt Sanders

    Vlade the Impaler, you are rockin it big time momma! Keep me comin! This blog is the most important regarding water in Calif. without question….

  7. Curt Sanders

    Keep them coming! Typo..

  8. Curt Sanders

    Let’s not forget that there are female power brokers who also have sold out completely… Though this being a patriarchal society the preponderance are male Ass$&!!s powerbroker sell outs…in the realm of water.

  9. Curt Sanders

    Another correction, this is the most important publication (not just blog) regarding water in the state… Yep

  10. Christina Toms

    I once attended a meeting with Jason Peltier about CEQA work that SFCWA desperately did not want to do. He sat silent the entire time before standing up, saying “Just don’t f*ck it up”, and walking out the door. So yeah, “powerful male asshole” is a pretty fair assessment.

  11. Dan

    Great article. Havingg worked with WWD pre and post Birmingham, you are spot on!!!

  12. Janet Levers

    It strikes me as highly ironic that Jasons’ pad on “Millionaires Row” is close below the proposed outtakes of the Twin Tunnels. Maybe someday there won’t be any water running by his front yard, or it’ll be so salty it kills the lawn