Agriculture

Westlands shake-up: Reformers sweep election, oust water board’s president. Is its GM next?

A slate of candidates aiming to reform the powerful Westlands Water District swept into victory on Monday night, cementing a new board majority and likely spelling the end of the line for the district’s general manager. 

The four candidates – Justin Diener, Ernie Costamagna, Jeremy Hughes, and Ross Franson – captured the four available seats in preliminary results.

In the process, they are primed to boot the lone incumbent running for re-election from his seat – current Westlands board president Ryan Ferguson.

Preliminary vote totals flowed as follows: 

CandidateVote Total
Justin Diener8,514,698
Jeremy Hughes7,934,355
Donald Ross Franson III7,876,508
Ernie Costamagna7,873,415
Ryan Ferguson6,319,234

While results are preliminary in nature, it is viewed as highly unlikely that Ferguson will capture the necessary 1.5 million votes to vault out of fifth place and recapture his seat.

The results of the growers-only election for the nation’s largest agricultural water district were released Monday night ahead of a Tuesday board meeting. 

The slate of four, branded the “Change Coalition,” will join two presumed pre-existing reformers: William Bourdeau and Kevin Assemi.

Bourdeau, a Vice President for Harris Farms, is also the chairman of the Valley Future Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates The Sun. 

Their first order of business may very well be an overhaul of Westlands’ management, beginning with its longtime general manager, Tom Birmingham.

Heading into the election, a report by SJVWater’s Lois Henry detailed the on-going gripes from growers over Birmingham’s 22-year leadership of the district.

Westlands officials declined to comment on the preliminary results of the election released Monday night.

In mailers distributed to growers, the Change Coalition said that the district’s longtime approach to the state’s water wars has largely failed.  

“With the millions spent on legislation, litigation and lobbying, we have had either a 0% or 5% allocation in five of the last nine years,” the latter reads. 

“In our only two wet years in that same period, we lost over 300,000 acre-feet of water because our leadership was unprepared to store it.“

The incoming coalition argued that Birmingham’s strategy of legal and political battling “have proven not to be durable” and called for a more conciliatory approach with lawmakers, regulators, neighboring water agencies, and local advocates  

Beyond the rough-and-tumble in courtrooms and government meetings, change advocates have pressed for strengthened groundwater recharge and water banking in wet years, an approach that has just recently been embraced by Westlands management. 

The starting point for a whirlwind of change, particularly among the new slate of elected board members, may begin – in earnest – on Tuesday.

The subject of discussion? General Manager Birmingham’s future atop the district’s organizational chart. 

Westlands’ current board is set to hold a closed door discussion about Birmingham’s position during its regularly-scheduled meeting. 

Sources told The Sun there is a possibility the new majority could make moves to relieve Birmingham of his duties as early as Nov. 28, when results of the 2022 election are certified and they are seated.

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.