Badlands Journal editorial board
The modest author of this letter of proper west side condemnation of Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, claims he is one of the smaller farmers in the district and doesn't "wield much power." But Brad Gleason seems to be a little more than his modest claim. He seems to be a totally vertically integrated nut businessman operating on many farms throughout the Westlands district.
West Hills Farm Services, Inc.
Brad has over 25 years of experience in planning and executing management strategies for farming operations of all sizes.
B.S.: Business Administration, with emphasis in accounting,
University of the Pacific, 1981
Professional credentials & activities
<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->Certified Public Accountant, 1983
<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->CA Society of Certified Public Accountants
<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->Western Pistachio Association
<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->Fresno County Farm Bureau
<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->Fresno County Water Advisory Committee
Nature’s Joy, Co-Owner, Chief Financial Officer (2012-present) – Company formation, capitalization, team acquisition, product development, launch and vision.
Primex, Co-Owner, Chief Financial Officer (2006-present) – Strategist and business consulting including litigation support as an expert witness. Business reorganization, formation, accounting, and relationship management.
West Hills Farm Services, Inc., President, West Hills Financial LLC (1988-present) – Diversified farming: responsible for financial management & planning, strategic planning, land acquisitions, lease negotiations, finance and bank relations, crop marketing, and water strategies.
Allen Farming, Inc., President (1986-1990) – Responsible for financial, administrative and operational aspects of a diversified ranch; developed accounting, budgeting and financial statements for crop, equipment and land lenders; developed strategies for successful compliance with various government regulators; marketed over $7 million dollars worth of commodity sales on an annual basis.
So, maybe the last business goal Gleason has is to become a member of the Westlands board of the directors in a post-Birmingham era so that he can get a bit of control of it himself. After all, Gleason seems to understand clearly what Westlands does -- that ownership is not the only means of control or even perhaps the most lucrative.
Small farmer to Westlands management: time for transformation
Westlands farmers should be demanding transparency and restoration of trust
In the face of challenges that require new leadership grounded in solid policy, we are instead made to suffer a series of embarrassing gimmicks.
The farmers I know cannot operate their farms in such a slipshod manner and survive, so why are we allowing such management practices?
I am a farmer in the Westlands Water District. That is not an easy thing to admit these days.
My acres there aren’t vast, nor do I wield much power. I have never sat on the board of directors. Like other smaller farmers in Westlands, I’ve had to accept the reality that the direction of the district – misguided as it has been of late – is beyond my control.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice. For the past several years, I’ve been speaking out in private meetings with my fellow growers. Now, given the district’s bent toward secrecy and its habit of shooting itself in the foot, I am choosing to speak out publicly.
Let’s start with Westland’s reason for existence. The district is there to advocate for its farmers. I am not an enemy of the environment or the Delta. I understand the importance of our fisheries. At the same time, I think we have a righteous case for receiving water as part of the Central Valley Project.
What people tend to forget is that the project itself was built in the 1940s in the name of agriculture. The premise was to redistribute some of the state’s water from its flood-prone north and move it to productive soils in the middle.
Among our 600,000 acres in Westlands is some of the most fertile soil in the world. Yes, some of it is plagued with salts and selenium, but much of it isn’t. And that distinction gets lost on the public, in part because the present leaders of Westlands keep making foolish decisions that allow us to be portrayed as the big, bad water guzzler of California.
The blame lies squarely with our general manager, Tom Birmingham, and a handful of longtime board members who continue to support him even in the wake of news stories that paint Westlands as manipulative, self-serving and, in some cases, highly unethical.
Last December, The New York Times ran a front-page story revealing that the district had spent nearly $1 million to prop up a lobbying group called El Agua. The intention of the group is to add the voice of Latino farmworkers to the debate over severe cutbacks in water deliveries to Fresno County’s west side – a worthy goal but less so when it seems that the puppet master behind the scenes is Westlands.
Like many readers, I was surprised to learn that such large sums of money were spent by Westlands to support a front group. And I have been disappointed that public efforts to find out more about the relationship between El Agua and Westlands have been stymied by a lack of transparency on the part of our leadership. Secrecy is not what we need right now.
Then in March, I learned from news accounts that the Securities and Exchange Commission had handed down a penalty of $125,000 to the district and even fined Birmingham $50,000 for issuing misleading financial information crucial for the district’s bond financing.
Birmingham, who serves as both general manager and general legal counsel, stated publicly that the district used “a little Enron accounting” to help achieve debt-coverage ratios. That is not so funny or smart for someone holding down the fort.
Then last week, I picked up the newspaper only to learn that the management of Westlands saw fit to loan $1.4 million, at a ridiculously low interest rate, to a senior-level employee so he could buy a luxury house in Northern California. The interest rate is below 1 percent, and the loan has extended for several years after the initial due date passed.
The farmers I know cannot operate their farms in such a slipshod manner and survive. So why are we allowing such management practices during a time when we have endured federal water allocations of just 5 percent of our contract this year and zero percent in the two previous years?
Perhaps you’re thinking that somehow the government and indirectly your taxes underwrites all this mismanagement. Not a chance. In fact, it comes from monies charged to me and every other grower in the form of assessments and land based charges.
We should be demanding transparency and restoration of trust. In the face of challenges that require new leadership grounded in solid policy, we are instead made to suffer a series of embarrassing gimmicks.
I am proud of the transformation that has taken place in the soil of Westlands over the past two decades. Most of the water we receive now goes to growing high-value nuts, fruits and vegetables that, unlike cotton or grains, receive no federal crop subsidies.
Now it is time for a similar transformation to take place in our management. The Central Valley Project succeeded beyond the wildest predictions in turning the fertile soil of Westlands into some of the world’s most productive farms. That story, sadly, has been lost in all these shenanigans.
Brad Gleason of Fresno farms and owns acreage in Westlands Water District near Coalinga. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conflicts swirl around San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage plan
Deal unites Westlands Water District and the Obama administration
Feds relieved of duty to provide drainage, districts relieved of their debt
Northern California Democrats and some Delta-area water districts are skeptical
Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham, following a House panel hearing on a proposed irrigation drainage deal.
A proposal to solve a long-running San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage dispute between the Westlands Water District and the federal government is roiling a Congress already hung up on other California water fights.
The further complications surfaced Tuesday at a House of Representatives hearing that illuminated how the drainage proposal pits one California region against another even as, for a change, it unites Westlands with the Obama administration.
“We need to solve this problem,” Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham told lawmakers. “It is a problem that has festered for more than 35 years.”
Skeptics, though, blast the irrigation drainage proposal as unbalanced and unwise.
“There are red flags and smoking guns all over this subject matter,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “The interests of the Westlands Water District are being elevated above the interests of taxpayers, the interests of the environment and the interests of other water users.”
Underscoring the difficulties ahead, Interior Department senior adviser John C. Bezdek revealed that the agency’s Office of Inspector General is “currently involved in an investigation” that touches somehow on three other smaller water districts north of Westlands.
Bezdek provided no additional details of the investigation, other than to add that it does not involve Westlands. But he said that as a result the Obama administration was not yet taking a position on related irrigation-drainage legislation affecting the so-called “northerly districts.”
The proposals in question involve the federal government’s responsibility to build facilities for removing drainage water from irrigated San Joaquin Valley croplands. Only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain terminated prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir.
The main legislative proposal by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, shoulders the 600,000-acre Westlands district with responsibility for its own drainage. Westlands also agreed to retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland, about one-third of which has already been taken out of production.
In turn, Westlands would be forgiven its capital cost debt owed for the construction of Central Valley Project irrigation facilities, estimated at about $295 million. The government would no longer be responsible for constructing drainage, saving an estimated $3.8 billion.
“It helps ensure the land in the Westlands Water District can continue to remain productive, while protecting the environment and letting the federal government off the hook for potentially billions of dollars,” Valadao said of his bill.
A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has stressed that she’s focusing on broader California water legislation before turning to the irrigation drainage dispute. One Republican, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, said Tuesday that “legitimate questions” about cost must be answered before the bill advances.
Other questions, Contra Costa Water District General Manager Jerry Brown told the water and power subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, include precisely how Westlands will handle the drainage, whether sufficient land is being retired and how Westlands’ modified water claims will affect other CVP customers.
“We just don’t think this is the best deal, or even a good deal, for taxpayers,” said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Following the hearing, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, added his own “strong opposition” to the Westlands bill.
A separate, but related, bill authored by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, covers the San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco water districts, which are north of Westlands. The three northerly districts serve a total of about 102,000 acres in western Merced and Fresno counties.
The new legislation, introduced by Costa earlier this month, includes $70 million for anti-salinity efforts undertaken by the San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco districts. It also relieves them of their debt owed for the construction of irrigation facilities and delivers title to the facilities to the districts.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, as with the Westlands deal, is in turn freed of its obligation to build a drainage system.
“The benefits to the United States are significant,” Costa said.