23 Oct 2008

WHO is Westlands?

A concerned reader sent me this:
I think the public would be well served if you folks in academia delved into the ownership patterns in the Westlands Water District. While Westlands claims (it has never published a list), variously, 600 growers, or 700 growers, the reality is many of those 700 are members of the same family or related through marriages. An example is tomato giant Jack Woolf, with six children and 24 grandchildren, all claiming to be individual farmers but all participating in one gigantic 25,000 acre operation. It has been my contention for more than two decades that there are only three or four dozen families who control the vast bulk of land in the 617,000 acres in the district, similar to the oligarchical family ownership patterns in South America.

When I was writing about Kesterson issues nearly a quarter of a century ago, there were 240 "farmers" in the Westlands and 40 of them controlled over half the land. When the 49,000 acres in Westlands that drained their toxic waste waters into Kesterson were threatened with shutdown and closure, in 1985, the Assembly Office of Research looked into who owned what in those 49,000 acres. Westlands attempted to portray them as small family farmers (wearing overalls no doubt) but the Assembly study revealed, in fact, there were only a handful of millionaires, including the Wolfsen Family (which later received $40 million in an Interior sellout over a drainage-damage lawsuit) and the family of former California Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidateBill Jones (who is John McCain's California campaign manager and, if McCain is elected, will probably become the next Secretary of Interior and make sure that Westlands gets the sweetest water delivery contract in American history).

How about you folks in academia stepping up to the plate (perhaps with some aid from grad students) and find out who owns what in Westlands?
According to Westland's website, "The District serves approximately 600 family-owned farms that average 900 acres in size." Although "600 family-owned farms" is NOT the same as "farms owned by 600 families," WWD's 2005-6 annual report says that WWD has "700 family farmers."

I looked at the 2000-1 and 2005-6 annual reports (none more recent) and found that 5 of 9 directors were the same in both years. Although it's well-known that water organizations tend to be controlled by the same people over long periods of time, I suggest that these folks probably have more power and knowledge than most.

So, start with Frank Coelho, Jr., Donald Devine, Daniel Errotabere, Kendall Gardner, and Ted Sheely. (Coelho, Jr., Devine and Shelly have since been reelected for additional 4-year terms. That means at least three consecutive terms.) Note that "Each landowner in the District is allowed one vote for each dollar's worth of land to which he/she holds title." According to Wikipedia, "11% of the owners owned 84% of the land in 1968."

Note that these names do not match those of the founders, i.e., "among the prime movers in the organizational effort were Jack O'Neill, Russell Giffen, Frank Diener, Harry Baker and Louis Robinson. Following an election by the landowners involved, the Board of Supervisors declared Westlands Water District formed on September 8, 1952." OTOH, I've seen organizations "led" by people who were not in charge, e.g., MWDSC.

I looked for academic research and found (in Brozovic et al. [PDF]) that Westlands has a three-tier structure: 800 farms are organized into 350 "trading networks" that contain 1 to 29 farms in each. Each of these trading networks has "internal trades" that are NOT arms-length but reflect, instead, movement of water from one internal accounting entity to another.

But how many "families" (a la mafia) control these trading networks? It's hard to find evidence -- academic or civilian -- that shows how individuals might control multiple trading networks. If the notions mentioned above are true, 10-20 families control those 350 trading networks.

If you have information on the names, controlling interests, corporate structure or other levers of control at Westlands, comment here, email me, or comment anonymously at whistle-safe.org -- a website I founded.

Bottom Line: It's all-too-common for big, powerful companies to pose as the "little guy" to get help meant to help the little guy against the big and powerful. Stop favoring particular industries, companies and locations and make policy that helps PEOPLE.

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