Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Federal agency studies enlarging San Luis Reservoir

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is preparing a report on raising San Luis Dam to enlarge San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County.

The 2 million acre-foot reservoir is already the key west Valley holding place for irrigation water for a broad swath of farming, including 600,000-acre Westlands Water District.

Bureau Commissioner Michael Connor on Saturday mentioned his agency is working on a draft appraisal, which roughly describes the benefits, costs and feasibility of raising the dam. Connor was a panel member at the Delta Water Summit.

He did not say why the appraisal is being done now or release other details, such as how much larger the reservoir would become. His statement about the possible enlargement of San Luis was a surprise to many water agency officials and observers.

The appraisal report should be ready in October. If it appears feasible, the bureau would complete a final feasibility study within a few years.

San Luis is one of the largest off-stream reservoirs in the country, but it is only holding 16% of its capacity right now. Drought and environmental water pumping restrictions in Northern California have left it near historic lows.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.

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.”

Extra water for Westlands actually more than twice cost reported

Westlands Water District farmers will buy some precious river water from Oakdale Irrigation District in Stanislaus County at $128 per acre-foot, a recent news story reported.

But that’s not what Westlands farmers will pay, says a local water engineer. That’s how much Oakdale Irrigation will get.

The bill for Westlands farmers will be more like $350 to $375 per acre-foot. There are a number of additional costs to get the water to Westlands through the vast canal system in California.

But that’s a cost of doing business this dry year. Farmers are in the grip of a second consecutive dry year and suffering water cutbacks for threatened fish species . Westlands will get only 20% of its contractual allotment from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

What would farmers pay for the contractual water? It’s $48.50 per acre-foot. But with additional delivery costs and fees, farmers pay closer to $129.

Clearly, they are forced to pay much bigger prices in a year like this.

In the Oakdale Irrigation District deal, Westlands will buy 40,000 acre-feet of Stanislaus River water if it’s available. At $350 per acre-foot, farmers would spend $14 million.

That won’t come close to covering the shortfall in Westlands, where the contractual allotment is more than 1.1 million acre-feet annually.

For those who were curious, one acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough for an average Valley family for 12 to 18 months.

Der Manouel defends Borba: an overreaction to one bad word

West-side grower Mark Borba was ousted from the Community Medical Centers board after referring to President Barack Obama as “Blackie” in an email exchange with Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham.

But at least one prominent local businessman says Borba got a raw deal.
Michael Der Manouel Jr., a Republican and chair of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, devoted his daily KMJ (AM 580) radio commentary to the controversy, saying the Borba has a long record of helping the poor and shouldn’t have been removed for a single slip up.

Mark Borba

“While there’s no question Mr. Borba’s choice of words are regrettable, there’s also no question that his ouster by the board was an overreaction,” Der Manouel said in the commentary.

Der Manouel also said Borba apologized for his remarks, “expressing sincere regret for using that word and other words in the email.” The remark was part of a long email debate over water for the Valley’s west side.

“I’ve known Mark Borba for years and he’s given decades of time, talent and treasure to the local health care effort, largely to provide services for indigent and predominantly Hispanic Valley residents,” Der Manouel said. “He’s no racist.”

In a follow-up interview, Der Manouel said Borba has “raised and given hundreds of thousands of dollars for (Community Regional), whose primary mission downtown is to provide indigent, unreimbursed health care.”

Michael Der Manouel Jr.

Der Manouel said in an interview that Borba “made an off-handed remark in a private email. There is no evidence that this sort of thing has ever happened before or will happen again. So what does the hospital board gain by removing him as chair? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

What it is, Der Manouel said, is political correctness run amok.

“The enforcement of politically correct speech in this country is a disease of the gutless,” he said in the KMJ commentary. “You don’t throw 30 years of service away over an incident like this because nobody goes through life without an errant word now and then.”

If Borba was African American, Der Manouel said, “I doubt if this would be a story.”

Der Manouel, who owns an insurance company, said if it was his employee who made such a remark, “it depends on the situation, but for a one time situation, I seriously doubt if I would terminate someone over a mistake that was made and genuine remorse professed.”

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.

West-side Valley farm water already lagging

Farm water analysts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are less than optimistic about the water supply for next summer despite a good snowpack so far this year.

West  siders suspect a key Valley reservoir won’t fill up this year, due to water pumping restrictions that protect dying fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

It’s a familiar refrain. For years, west siders have been making the point about fish protections reducing irrigation deliveries. This year, the farm-water analysts are projecting 40% to 55% of contractual allotments even if the Sierra gets all the snow it usually gets.

The projection comes from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing west Valley farmers on the federal Central Valley Project. Among those farmers are Westlands Water District growers.

Here’s how the water delivery works: Water flows from Northern California rivers through the delta to the huge pumps near Tracy in the south delta. The water is pumped south — which is uphill, by the way — to San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County.

To fill San Luis, a steady flow of pumped water continues through the winter. When the water is interrupted, it’s tough to catch up with the loss of pumping.

Salmon and delta smelts sometimes are nearby, so pumping must be slowed or stopped to prevent them from being dragged into the pumps and killed.

Analysts say the restricted pumping in December equates to about a 10% reduction in available farm water supply. The situation may not get any better this month or next month if the fish are still exposed to the danger.

And if the winter suddenly turns dry — as it sometimes does in California — the projection of available water would drop to somewhere between 35% and 40%, according to the authority.