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The politics of drought: California water interests prime the pump in Washington

Data: Westlands board's contributions | Data: Resnicks' contributions

Last year, as California endured one of its driest years on record, the Westlands Water District made it rain 3,000 miles away — on Capitol Hill.​

The nation’s largest agricultural water district, located in the Central Valley, spent $600,000 on lobbying efforts, according to an analysis by KPCC in partnership with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That's by far Westlands' biggest annual expenditure for lobbying — about six times what it spent in 2010.

The lobbying comes as Congress and federal agencies consider how to respond to three years of drought conditions that have cut water supplies across the state and ratcheted up political pressure from the hard-hit agricultural sector, including many of Westlands' customers.

California farmers grow nearly half the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts. The California Farm Water Coalition, an industry group, estimates farmers -- and the processors and truckers who get crops to market -- could lose $5 billion this year due to the drought.

How important is this issue? Well, in recent months it's brought the President, the House Speaker and the powerful House Natural Resources Committee to the Central Valley.

RELATED: What does the drought look like to you?

Congress is considering two major legislative packages – one already passed by the House, authored by freshman Republican Congressman David Valadao of the Central Valley; one introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein, with Barbara Boxer as a co-sponsor.

The bills have the common goal of redistributing water to meet farmers’ needs, but they differ on execution and the ramifications.   

The House bill, which was co-sponsored by the state’s entire GOP delegation, would rewrite water contracts and in the process set aside protections, which has environmental groups up in arms.

The Senate bill would allow regulators to “provide the maximum quantity of water supplies possible” to where it’s most needed and boost existing federal drought programs by $200 million.

As is true with many issues in Washington, money is part of the fight. As Bay Area Congressman George Miller says, "You can make water run uphill if you have enough money."

Regional and political battles over water

California water politics is mostly about geography — Northern California's watershed versus the Central Valley, which relies on that water coming south to irrigate crops, versus Southern California, with its massive and thirsty urban population.

As the drought has worsened, those various interests have pushed harder for relief through campaign contributions to key members of Congress and by employing lobbyists.  

The two biggest spenders on water issues are Westlands, whose customers own 600,000 acres of farmland in Fresno and Kings counties, and the owners of Kern County-based Paramount Farms, the nation's largest grower of pistachios and almonds. 

Just how serious is the quest for water? Last year, Westlands hired four different lobbying firms -- even as the overall amount spent by all groups and corporations on federal lobbying has been going down since 2010. All eight of Westlands' officially registered lobbyists previously worked in government — including a former Republican congressman from Minnesota.

Data source: Federal Election Commission via

And the $600,000 Westlands spent is only what was reported on required disclosure forms. According to an internal document obtained by Southern California Public Radio, Westlands also paid $90,000 last year to former California Democratic Congressman Tony Coelho for "Washington representation," which was not included in Westlands’ lobbying reports.

Coelho, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is related to one of Westlands' board members and they are partners in a dairy farm. Westlands also paid another firm nearly $1 million for an "outreach and awareness" campaign. (See Westlands' political contributions)

Democratic Congressman Miller, who has been on Capitol Hill for more than four decades, says lobbyists keep their "A-game" going all the time, rain or shine, "because you never know when the good Lord's going to turn off the water. So you'd better be ready."

Money is extremely helpful in obtaining access and influence, which is crucial whenever Congress gets involved. That's true whether the cash is in the form of spending on lobbying or campaign donations.

Paramount Farms is owned by Lynda and Stewart Resnick of Los Angeles. Their multi-billion dollar fortune comes from a diverse portfolio that includes Fiji bottled water. They have a controlling interest in the Kern Water Bank Authority, which stores underground supplies of water to irrigate Paramount’s nut trees.

The Resnicks don't hire lobbyists at the federal level, but they're generous campaign contributors. They and people who work for their companies have given nearly $457,000 to candidates, political action and party committees since 2011. That includes nearly $321,000 from the Resnicks themselves. (See the Resnicks' top contribution recipients)

Congress grapples over how to respond

You can't just read the House and Senate bills and point to paragraphs that directly help either Westlands or the Resnicks. But John Lawrence, a former Capitol Hill staffer who currently teaches at the University of California's DC Center, says water bills are "very often written specifically in a vague sort of way." Congressman Miller adds: "There's rarely any word in a piece of water legislation that's there accidentally."

The bill that passed in the House would mandate an increase in pumping from the Sacramento Delta. Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that water would primarily go to Central Valley Project contractors, including the biggest — the Westlands Water District.

The bill also extends for 40 years all existing federal water service contracts – including the one for Westlands. Lawrence says that takes away any flexibility to make water decisions for a generation. He notes that once you've delivered a "signed, sealed contract, let alone been directed to do it by the Congress," you've taken away any chance at reviewing how future water should be allocated.

Feinstein’s Senate bill includes several provisions that would allow Delta water to be sent farther south to Kern County. Patricia Schifferle of the environmental group Pacific Advocates says, because of previous legislative amendments, the water would be made available to the groundwater bank controlled by Feinstein's supporters — the Resnicks.

(Neither Westlands nor the Resnicks’ holding company, Roll International, responded to requests for interviews.)

Feinstein recently revised her bill. This latest version includes a provision to boost Colorado River storage in Nevada, home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This version could make it to the Senate floor for a vote without going through the committee process.

Horse trading on Capitol Hill isn’t new. Some of the lobbying money goes to making sure everyone gets to wet their beak. Congressman Miller notes that deals get made – trading something Midwest lawmakers want in the farm bill for something Central Valley interests need in the water bill. He says there are "a lot of chits out there that have been planted around the anticipation of a water bill coming to the floor of Congress."

 If the House bill became law, Ron Stork of Friends of the River says not only would habitat restoration be hurt, but so would two other water consumers: farmers and residential users in the northern part of the state. Delta farmers, with some of the oldest water rights in California, and the city and county of Sacramento, which contract for drinking water, would find their supply "commandeered and delivered south."

The lobbying isn’t limited to Capitol Hill. It also takes place at the agency level. John Lawrence says private meetings are held behind closed doors at places such as the Bureau of Reclamation or the Environmental Protection Agency, where there's "greater wiggle room" on how water policies are implemented. Those conversations are confidential, not debated openly in Congressional committee hearings.

Westlands' reports show it lobbied the EPA, the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department (which includes the Bureau of Reclamation) and the Council on Environmental Quality, in addition to Congress and the White House. Three of the water district's lobbyists are former high-ranking officials of the Interior Department.

There's even a place lobbyists and campaign contributions collide: Patricia Schifferle from Pacific Advocates notes a 2012 breakfast fundraiser for Senator Feinstein in the offices of one of Westlands' lobbying firms, held "right around the time" of a budget amendment that gave water agencies access to federal water.

 In Washington, certain wells never run dry.

This story is the result of a collaboration between Southern California Public Radio and the Center for Responsive Politics. Kitty Felde is KPCC's Washington Correspondent; Viveca Novak is Editorial and Communications Director for the Center for Responsive Politics. That organization's senior researchers, Dan Auble and Doug Weber, contributed to this story.

Correction: A chart accompanying an earlier version of this story inaccurately characterized donations to political parties as having come from board members of the Westlands Water District. The donations were from board members and their immediate families; also a contribution from Lynda and Stewart Resnick to the Committee to Elect an Effective Valley Congressman was for then-Congressman Howard Berman, not Henry Waxman. 

Top Resnick family campaign contribution recipients from 2011-2013
Recipient Amount
Committee to Elect an Effective Valley Congressman (Howard Berman) $100,000
Democratic National Committee Services Corp $30,800
Republican National Committee $30,800
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $21,700
Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) $17,900
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee $13,000
Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) $12,300
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) $11,400
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Fresno) $11,300
Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) $10,400
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) $10,000
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Brookline) $10,000
LA Political Action Committee $10,000
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) $10,000
Peak Political Action Committee $10,000
To Organize a Majority Political Action Committee $10,000
Sen, Dianne Feinstein (D-California) $9,800

Data source:

campaign contributions from Westlands Water District board members, staff and family members from 2011-2013
Board Member Democratic Republican Total
James Anderson $2,500 $1,000 $3,500
Thomas Birmingham $10,500 $17,500 $28,000
Frank Coelho Jr. $2,600 $4,750 $7,350
Larry Enos 0 $1,000 $1,000
Daniel Errotabere $875 $5,525 $6,400
Georgianne Errotabere $875 $875 $1,750
Jean Errotabere $875 $4,300 $5,175
Gary Esajian $1,000 $8,500 $9,500
Bridget Neves 0 $2,500 $2,500
Todd Neves 0 $18,850 $18,850
Donald Peracchi $13,600 $45,500 $59,100
Judith Peracchi $5,000 $2,500 $7,500
Alan Sano $2,500 $1,000 $3,500
Christopher Woolf $2,000 $9,374 $11,374
Sarah Woolf $3,000 $3,500 $6,500
TOTALS $45,325 $126,674 $171,999

Data source: