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The idyllic community that Sisk promised, however, never came to fruition. Instead, Westlands used its political influence over the years to make sure the region remained in the hands of large factory farms that employ poorly paid migrant workers. The region's growers also have pocketed more than $1 billion in state and federal subsidies over the past few decades. Walker noted that it would not be possible to grow food in Westlands if it were not for the taxpayer handouts. He said a few years ago a colleague of his "looked at the value of the products Westlands grew, and the cost of growing them, and added in the real cost of water rather than the low rates they pay, and it turned out they run in the red."
Westlands has guaranteed its plentiful supply of cheap water and maintained its political connections over the years by hiring a number of former state and federal officials as both lobbyists and staff members. Peltier, for example, was a lobbyist for large water interests before becoming the Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science under President George W. Bush. He was then hired by Westlands. The district also has bankrolled many pro-agribusiness politicians. "They are the tail that wags the water dog in California, and not in a good way," said Walker of UC Berkeley.
During the 2012 election, the California Westside Farmers Inc., a Super PAC representing Westlands growers, donated $115,000 to mostly Republican House and Senate candidates. Westlands growers, who are mostly Republicans themselves, also contributed $50,000 to Governor Brown's Proposition 30, even though it raised taxes on the wealthy. Environmentalists have contended that the donation was to ensure that Brown would continue to push for the giant water tunnels plan.
Westlands growers also have contributed heavily to Democratic US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has advocated for more water for Big Ag, and to Central Valley Congressman Jim Costa, a Democrat who is one of Westlands most loyal supporters. In a 2012 Congressional hearing, Costa boasted: "No one has done more than yours truly to bring water to the San Joaquin Valley in the near term and the long term."
However, despite its many political connections, Westlands still only has junior water rights to Delta water, making the district particularly vulnerable to water cutbacks during dry years. Over the past two decades, the district has received 67 percent of the water supply it is contracted to get, on average, and the district has received much less than that during droughts. "We cannot live in a world that has 40-, 60-, 90-percent reductions in water supply on a regular basis," said Peltier.
In an effort to secure more water, Westlands has sued repeatedly to roll back state and federal environmental protections in the Delta. In 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service submitted a formal biological opinion concerning the Delta smelt. It found that dwindling freshwater flows paired with massive kills at the pumps in Tracy were pushing the pelagic fish to the edge of extinction. In turn, federal Judge Oliver Wanger demanded a 35 percent cut to water exports from the Delta.
That same year, Westlands and the San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority filed a lawsuit, alleging that the biological opinion was based on specious science. Judge Wanger sided with the water agencies and granted a preliminary injunction against water cuts. The ruling then led to a temporary increase in water deliveries.
In 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife submitted a rewritten opinion on the smelt, but once again Judge Wanger rejected it, contending that it did not adequately address the needs of water users. In the court hearing, he stated, "the public cannot afford sloppy science and unidirectional prescriptions that ignore California's water needs."
Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an organization that has fought to protect native fish in the Delta, believes that Wanger's decisions were too heavily influenced by non-environmental factors. "He thought that these protections were having too big of an impact on water supply, and that colored his perception," she said. After retiring from the bench in 2012, Judge Wanger briefly went to work as an attorney for Westlands, and was a keynote speaker at numerous Central Valley agribusiness conferences.
According to Peltier, Westlands will continue to fight the prominent belief among scientists that large water exports out of the Delta hurt native fish — even if BDCP is approved. "We will not accept certain social and economic losses and costs in the hope of benefitting the fish," he said.
Such a stance has environmentalists concerned that if the twin tunnels get built, and if Westlands continues to undermine environment laws and protections, water districts would be able to pump significantly more water out of the estuary. "If you look at California's history, water always flows towards money," said Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. "There are powerful corporate interests that have the power to get the water if we put the infrastructure in for them to divert it, and that's exactly what's going to happen despite any assurances the state's making about how [BDCP] is going to be run and governed."