9 Dec 2009

Tom Birmingham of Westlands Water District

Last Sunday, I spent five hours talking to Tom Birmingham, General Manager and Chief Council of Westlands Water District, "the biggest irrigation district in the world."

Among other things, we discussed crop choices, water efficiency, governance, Feinstein, his work for LADWP on Mono Lake, the water bills, the Peripheral Canal, family farms, water markets, exports and other malign influences on the Delta (and Smelt), unemployment in the area, and so on...

In particular, Tom was anxious to clear up two conflusions:
  1. Westlands does not have "junior water rights." As a contractor to BurRec, it has service contracts for delivery. Its contracts are "junior" in the sense that they get cut back the earliest, and most, compared to municipal, environmental and exchange contracts.
  2. Westlands does not have poor soil. It has excellent soil, but that soil suffers two problems: It contains selenium, which can accumulate in irrigation water (and harm the environment). Poor drainage can lead to water logged and salted roots, which destroys production.
Tom identified water delivery reliability as Westlands' short term problem and drainage as their long term problem.

I was very pleased that Tom took the time to meet with me, and I found him to be knowledgeable, patient and realistic. Enjoy the tapes.

Birmingham 1 [57 min/20MB]
Birmingham 2 [70 min/25MB]
Birmingham 3 [70 min/25MB]
Birmingham 4 [28 min/10MB]
Birmingham 5 [60 min/21MB]


Josh said...

So, what is poor soil, then? I'd thought that too much selenium and poor drainage constituted poor soil, but I guess I'm mistaken.

Maybe we shouldn't hurt feelings so much, and call it, "selenium-empowered", or, "water-holding", or "salt-friendly".

If drainage is his long term problem, then it must be very, very bad indeed, because I've seen the climate change predictions for water out of the Sierra and Northern California, and it ain't pretty.

Also, he doesn't need drainage to farm solar. But, then, he wouldn't need nearly so much water, so I guess that would leave him out of the loop.

Jeff said...

Wow! That's a lot of audio. Could you give each piece a brief label of the topics discussed for the benefit of those who might want to listen to some but not all.

dfb said...

Poor soil is the kind you can't grow much in no matter what you do, for example if there is too little top soil. Westlands does have fertile soil. It is the drainage problem that makes selenium, other trace elements, and salt an issue.

I do take issue with the long-term short term characterization of their issues. Water delivery reliability is likely to remain an issue for a long time, especially if DWR's snow pack models turn out to be moderately accurate. And the drainage issues have forced farmers to already take land out of rotation because of salt accumulation. Moreover, water deliveries from the Delta are laden with salts, compounding the issues.

WaterSource said...

November, 2007

The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has been studying the issue and is researching selenium-rich feed for livestock. “In the United States, selenium deficiency is typically a bigger problem than selenium toxicity,”. “Ranchers in selenium-poor regions either inject their animals with the mineral or add selenium supplements to feed.”

Canola absorbed approximately half of the selenium in the soil to a depth of two feet in the Central Valley.

Fixed Carbon said...

Any way you can get segments of this on Hannity or other Fox News slots? It sounds to me like their presentation of the issues was neither "fair" nor "balanced." Did Tom try to contact Fox to correct the misconceptions perpetrated by Hannity and the subsequent echo chambering?

David Zetland said...

@Josh -- agreed.

@Jeff -- good idea; no time now. We kind of ramble around. Take your time, I guess :)

@dfb -- agreed.

@WS -- yes, some farmers were using the selenium to that advantage. The trouble happened when the concentration got too strong -- and started killing birds at Kesterson

@FC -- loaded question that I didn't ask him (we did talk about Latino Water Coalition and Sen DeMint...)

Damian said...

Did I hear Tom Birmingham say that they no longer use the internal electronic water market software?
And they rely on phone calls now and outside brokers?

David Zetland said...

@Damian -- you are right. It seems that they have some staff handling stuff, as well as *A* broker...

jerry said...

So, is the correct terminology supposed to be "junior water contracts --- we get cut back first when there's not enough to go around and we new that when we signed up" --?

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