Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Letter seeking Delta-pumping bill support exposes sticky water politics

To Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, it was the easiest vote in the world.

He wanted his colleagues to approve sending a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her support a House resolution that seeks more Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water for the Valley’s west side.

But, as with so much else in politics, the request turned out to be anything but simple.

Phil Larson

Larson’s initial motion passed 3-0 — but Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Debbie Poochigian abstained. They wanted the mull it over and, for Borgeas, to check with other members of the Valley’s congressional delegation before backing the letter.

The bill has been introduced by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. But Borgeas noted that in the past few years Tulare Republican Devin Nunes had also introduced legislation that would increase delta pumping — including one last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.

Larson was frustrated. How could politics seep into a request so simple?

The board, he felt, should support all efforts — be they Republican or Democrat — to bring more water to the Valley’s west side.

Still, he agreed to the delay — just a few hours until the afternoon.

At issue is Costa’s H.R. 1927, which would tweak existing management plans — known as biological opinions — covering threatening Delta smelt and endangered salmon to allow more pumping.

Andreas Borgeas

Johnny Amaral, Nunes’ chief-of-staff, says Nunes’ 2009 effort was almost identical to Costa’s, but Costa’s people say the current effort is more nuanced in that it wouldn’t eliminate the biological opinions.

Nunes’ 2009 effort would have suspended the biological opinions and set pumping levels at 100% of the contracted amounts annually. Democrats controlled the House at the time. The effort went nowhere.

But Nunes had better luck last year, with the Republicans in control. He succeeded in passing an ambitious, pro-agriculture water bill that would have significantly increased water deliveries to the Valley’s west side.

Both Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, were opposed to the legislation It died in the Senate.

“The fact of the matter is if Democrats in the House and Senate actually cared about a reliable water supply, they would have supported language to allow the pumps to run when the it was offered in 2009,” Amaral said.

Rep. Devin Nunes

“It’s all just a big game to them, playing to their radical environmentalist pals. To quote Yogi Berra, its ‘deja vu all over again.’ Except now, communities and families are being devastated for no good reason. It’s time for the Senate to follow the leadership displayed in the House and do something useful — for once.”

For starters, he said the Senate should pass its own legislation so both sides can have a starting position for negotiations. Costa’s bill messes that up, he said, because it changes the House’s already established position.

“It’s like we’re negotiating with ourselves right now,” he said.

Costa has a different outlook. His strategy is for the House to pass something that has a chance to get through the Senate. He believes his current bill does that.

Which brings it all back around to the Fresno County Supervisors.

Rep. Jim Costa

They reconvened Tuesday afternoon and debated just what the letter to Feinstein should say.

Borgeas’ suggestion was that it say the board supports not only Costa’s current bill, but recognize other efforts, too, including ones “approved by the House but that have not yet been approved by the Senate.”

It is important, Borgeas said, to give recognition to Nunes’ efforts.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea then chimed in, saying that language went too far and “starts making it partisan.”

So the specific reference to being “approved by the House” but “not yet approved by the Senate” was eliminated, and the final wording only referenced current and past efforts to increase westside water deliveries.

The letter was finally approved — 5-0.

Fresno Co. GOP Facebook page used to attack Amaral

This may be the last word on the ugly, profanity-laced email exchange between Mark Borba, a west-side grower, and Johnny Amaral, chief of staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican.

The email chain is best known for one sent from Borba to Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham that included a racially insensitive comment about President Barack Obama. That resulted in Borba stepping down as Community Medical Centers’ board chair.

But it seems a Republican who had access to the Fresno County GOP’s Facebook page was unhappy with Amaral’s comments.

Not long after the April exchange, someone wrote on the Fresno County GOP Facebook page that Amaral’s emails were unacceptable and he should resign from Nunes’ staff.

The comment — which wasn’t authorized or the official position of Fresno County’s Republican Party — might have been quickly erased and largely gone unnoticed. But there was a problem: local party leaders couldn’t take it down because they lacked administrator privileges on the Facebook page.

So it stayed up — for a long time — while Fresno County Republican Central Committee Chair Sandra Lakeman tried to get the administrator privileges changed.

Lakeman is the newly elected chair, and the leadership team of the Fresno County GOP changed as well. Things such as Facebook were never updated. Someone, or likely several people, from a past regime held those administrator privileges.

Two weeks later — after Lakeman had to prove to Facebook officials that she was the duly elected head of the Fresno County GOP — she was given administrator privileges and was able to take the post down.

She replaced it with an apology:

“The statement posted April 10th regarding the Chief of Staff, Johnny Amaral and Congressman Devin Nunes, was not an authorized message by the Fresno Country Republican Party. The Fresno County Republican Party values our working relationship with our Republican Party election officials. This was a malicious attack against these individuals.”

Amaral said he believes the current Fresno Republican leadership had no role in the comment, and actually finds the whole thing funny.

“I talked to Sandra and others at the Fresno County GOP, and I take them at their word,” he said. “No harm, no foul, in my opinion. We all got a good laugh out of it.”

Water at heart of heated email exchanges between Borba, others

West-side grower Mark Borba was forced to step down as Community Medical Centers’ board chair after he sent an email with a racially insensitive comment about President Barack Obama.

The story appeared in Tuesday’s Bee.

But Borba’s statement was just one small part of a long-running series of email exchanges on March 1 that exposed a seamier side of politics not often seen by the general public.

Mark Borba

The emails went on for hours and primarily involved Borba, Johnny Amaral, who is chief of staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican, and Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham.

Several others, including Westlands board members and staffers for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were copied in some of the emails.

The f-word was often used, as were other expletives.

It all started with Borba thanking Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat, for writing a letter to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor.

In the letter, Costa urged the Bureau to increase water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is restricted because of protections in place to protect the delta smelt.

Borba then added: “This is total insanity. Where the Hell is Feinstein & the Administration?” He then goes on to detail the economic losses to the Valley’s west side before concluding: “The Senator’s silence is deafening.”

One of those copied on the email was Birmingham, who responded with a defense of Feinstein. He wrote to Borba that “Senator Feinstein and her staff have been pushing Interior and Reclamation behind the scenes.”

It is at that point that Borba explodes with multiple expletives and calls Obama “Blackie.” He wrote: “I’m tired of these (expletive) politicians waltzing thru here… telling us how tough things are… picking our pockets for campaign $$$$… and they returning to DC and doing nothing! Put their (expletive) careers on the line… or step down.”

Birmingham then lashed out in response, telling Borba to “give me a (expletive) break.” He then brings the Valley’s Republican congressional delegation — Nunes, Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, Hanford’s David Valadao and Turlock’s Jeff Denham — into the increasingly heated email conversation.

Tom Birmingham

“The question you should be asking,” Birmingham wrote to Borba, “is where in the (expletive) were Denham, Nunes, Valadao and McCarthy, all of whom were asked to sign the (Costa) letter.”

Birmingham tells Borba that all of Costa’s Valley Republican congressional colleagues refused to sign the letter.

Borba then responds with an email to Nunes. He copied both Amaral and Birmingham. In the email, Borba tells Nunes that “standing on the sidelines… is not helpful. We’re dying out here… and you’re playing politics? What’s your excuse? If we ran our businesses like you guys run Congress… we’d be broke. Come to think of it… we’re getting there… with your ‘help.’”

Amaral responds, telling Borba he is “pathetic.”

“How quickly (Westlands) forgets what we did… and how they allowed (Feinstein) to do nothing at all. Its no wonder you guys continue to lose. Sending (expletive) letters meant to cover someones (expletive) does nothing to advance the effort,” Amaral wrote.

Borba then, in essence, asks both Amaral and Nunes — what have you done for west-side agriculture lately? Amaral replies that Nunes and his fellow Republicans did do something for the west side last year, “and you guys completely (expletive) it up and threw it away.”

At one point, Amaral writes “blah blah blah. The moment you (expletive) get your lord and savior difi (Feinstein) to do something… ANYTHING at all, the House will move a bill again.”

In an interview Tuesday, Amaral explained this part of his exchange with Borba. He said it was about H.R. 1837, legislation that would have would restored about 1.4 million acre-feet of water annually to Valley farmers who have lost water to environmental causes.

Amaral said considerable work went into the bill, which eventually passed the Republican-controlled House with the support of 10 Democrats, including Costa. But then the Senate — or Feinstein — did nothing.

“It was a gift teed up do something relevant on water and it was squandered,” Amaral said in the interview.

Instead, Amaral said, west-side ranchers and growers held a fundraiser for Feinstein.

As the emails between Amaral and Borba grow uglier and more personal, Amaral adds a new element, telling Borba he didn’t appreciate him “calling Devin a (expletive) to (Republican businessman) Tal Cloud.”

Borba responds: “Sometimes the truth hurts.”

During the exchanges, Nunes, Cloud and Fresno County Lincoln Club Chairman Michael Der Manouel Jr. weigh in. Both Nunes and Der Manouel write to Borba saying that letters are useless — Der Manouel saying they “don’t mean (expletive).”

Cloud’s contribution: “I can’t wait to hear the other side of the story on this. Most likely (Nunes) is tired of you everyone (sic) kissing Feinstein’s (expletive) when she never comes through on issues that matter.”

Amaral said Tuesday he regretted his use of profanity — but not the content of the emails.

“I will defend to my last dying breath the work Devin has done to improve the water situation in California and in the Valley,” he said. “I am proud of the work we’ve done.”

Nunes pointed out in an interview that several Westlands growers support and have donated to Democrats such as Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown. He said those Democrats “laugh at these guys over drinks, and they’re playing them for money.”

“This is no different than what we’ve been telling these guys,” Nunes added. “They have a flawed strategy that is doomed to failure.”

Borba and Birmingham both declined to comment on the emails. Feinstein also declined to comment.