Thursday, January 7, 2016

Farmers Try Political Force to Twist Open California’s Taps

Few in agriculture have shaped the debate over water more than the
several hundred owners of an arid finger of farmland west of Fresno.


FIVE POINTS, Calif. — The message that Maria L. Gutierrez gave legislators on Capitol Hill was anguished and blunt: California’s historic drought had not merely left farmland idle. It had destroyed Latino farm workers’ jobs, shuttered Latino businesses and thrown Latino families on the street. Yet Congress had turned a deaf ear to their pleas for more water to revive farming and farm labor.
So Latinos — the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, she noted pointedly — were sending a warning that politicians could not ignore.
“We created an organization that’s called El Agua Es Asunto de Todos — Water Is Everybody’s Business — so the Latino voice can be heard,” Ms. Gutierrez, who described herself as an El Agua volunteer, said in October 2013 at the meeting with lawmakers. “Don’t devastate our economy. Don’t take our jobs away.”
The group has since blanketed California with demands for more water on Spanish-language television, on the Internet, even on yard signs. But for whom it speaks is another matter: El Agua is bankrolled by more than $1.1 million from the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural irrigation contractor, a state entity created at the behest of — and largely controlled by — some of California’s wealthiest and most politically influential farmers.

For almost five decades, Westlands has brought its farmers a torrent of water from the reservoirs and aqueducts of the federal Central Valley Project, the vast public work that irrigates half of California agriculture. Drought has reduced that torrent to drops, and El Agua is one part of Westlands’ wide-ranging effort to open the spigots again.

California has more than 81,000 farms, and farmers claim four-fifths of all the water its citizens consume. But no one in agriculture has shaped the debate over water more — or swung their elbows wider — than the few hundred owners of an arid, Rhode Island-size finger of farmland west of Fresno.
A water utility on paper, Westlands in practice is a formidable political force, a $100 million-a-year agency with five lobbying firms under contract in Washington and Sacramento, a staff peppered with former federal and congressional powers, a separate political action committee representing farmers and a government-and-public-relations budget that topped $950,000 last year. It is a financier and leading force for a band of 29 water districts that spent at least another $270,000 on lobbying last year. Its nine directors and their relatives gave at least $430,000 to federal candidates and the Republican Party in the last two election cycles, and the farmers’ political action committee gave more than $315,000 more. Continue reading the main story