Westlands Water District celebrates 70th anniversary in San Joaquin Valley

Article Contributed to The Leader
Westlands Water District celebrates 70th anniversary in San Joaquin Valley

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Westlands Water District. Over the last 70 years, through hard work, innovative technology, and a commitment to continuous improvements, the district and its farmers have weathered droughts, unpredictable climates, changing regulations, and dynamic ecosystem needs.

Westlands continues to pursue smart, comprehensive local, state, and federal policies that will improve and ensure the health of the watershed, California agriculture, and the district for many years to come.

“Over the past seven decades, Westlands Water District has been a leader in water management and conservation, in a region with a unique combination of soil and Mediterranean climate that makes it ideal for agriculture,” said Ryan Ferguson, Board President of Westlands Water District. “Farmers in the District are proud of our history and ability to feed the nation from the bounty of our soil.”

Located on the west side of Fresno and Kings Counties, the District is home to some of the most fertile and productive farmland on the planet. Farmers began tending to the land that now makes up Westlands Water District in the early 1900s. The first significant irrigation of this area occurred after the first deep well was drilled in 1909, near present-day Naval Air Station Lemoore. Because of the fertility of the land, irrigated agriculture continued to gain momentum through World War II, with groundwater serving as the primary source of irrigation water. In the early 1940s, farmers, seeking an alternative to groundwater, started investigating the feasibility of constructing a water supply project to bring surface water to the area.

In 1952, these farmers on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley petitioned the Fresno County Board of Supervisors for the formation of a water district. Following an election by the landowners, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors announced the creation of the Westlands Water District on September 8, 1952. The first directors of the district were Ralph D. Carr, Frank Diener, A.L. Fourchy, C.W. Goodwin, and J.E. O’Neill, and the first officers of the district were Louis Telesco, George D. Helvey, and Earl A. Harnish who served in the offices of Assessor, Treasurer, and Tax Collector respectively. Initially, Westlands Water District encompassed approximately 400,000 acres of land. It was not until Westlands Water District merged with West Plains Water District in 1965 and purchased Broadview Water District in 2007 that the district reached its current size of approximately 615,000 acres.

While much has changed since 1952, Westlands Water District honors and respects its proud history and the contribution of its farmers, who continue to help feed the people of California, the United States, and the world. Today, Westlands Water District farmers produce approximately 60 different commodities for the fresh and frozen markets. On average, Westlands Water District and its farmers are able to provide for over 35,000 jobs and generate over $4.7 billion in economic activity each year.

Westlands remains one of the only water districts in the world that distributes irrigation water exclusively through a highly efficient system of pressurized pipe, with approximately 1,100 miles of buried pipe throughout the district. The district has over 3,000 agricultural, municipal, and industrial meters that track every drop of surface water delivered in the district—from the moment the water enters the system to the moment it reaches the field, and it is tracked through this robust metering system. Innovative water conservation does not end with the district itself. The farmers within Westlands Water District are leaders in cutting-edge water conservation and efficient irrigation practices. Like the District, the farmers continue to invest in and pursue innovative practices to conserve water and improve their agricultural yield. Westlands has and will continue to invest millions of dollars each year in its water infrastructure system so the system can continue serving all of the district’s water users for many years to come.

As the District looks to its next 70 years, it seeks ways to improve water infrastructure in California, the California ecosystem—particularly at-risk species—and watersheds, and ways to improve the district itself. The district has taken active steps to prepare for its future, such as improving the health of the watershed, implementing a robust land-repurposing program, and pursuing solar development within the district.

Westlands has long recognized the importance of addressing factors that limit the abundance of native, at-risk species for improving and securing the district’s water supply. In order to improve the health of the ecosystem, the district has supported habitat restoration and other non-flow actions throughout the watershed. For example, in 2020, through collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the United States Bureau of Reclamation, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, Westlands restored and enhanced approximately 2,100 acres of former cattle pastureland in the Lower Yolo Bypass into the tidal marsh, riparian, and upland buffer habitat that will provide new sources of food and shelter for native, at-risk fish.

The district also has an active land management program that encourages farmers to utilize and maintain efficient irrigation systems to support water conservation throughout the district. Additionally, the District has been investigating multi-purpose projects that can maximize the benefits of the land in the district, such as solar. Solar development in Westlands Water District contributes to meeting the State’s renewable energy goals with more than 700 MW of operational solar energy capacity within the district’s boundaries.

One of the biggest challenges on the horizon comes in the form of the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Well before the enactment of the SGMA, Westlands took a proactive approach to groundwater management, becoming one of the first Districts in California to track and monitor groundwater levels. Today, there are over 900 meters throughout the district used to monitor groundwater pumping and aquifer levels. The district, along with its farmers, is pursuing aquifer storage and recovery projects that will enable the capture and storage of water during excess for use in dry and water-short periods. Westlands will continue to invest in, pursue innovative solutions, and support comprehensive policies to improve the district’s water supply.

Westlands Water District remains committed to water conservation and will continue to pursue solutions to ensure an adequate, reliable water supply for farmers, communities, and ecosystems alike. Farmers in the District will continue to be leaders in the agriculture industry, serving the communities they call home. And, 70 years from now, Westlands Water District and its farmers will still be providing a healthy, safe, and reliable domestic food supply for families in California, the United States, and beyond.

Comments powered by Disqus