Calif. growers’ meeting with Trump draws Dem ire

By Debra Kahn | 05/27/2016 07:31 AM EDT

California irrigators are meeting today with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to hammer home their demands for more water from state and federal reservoirs.

The meeting in Fresno at the site of a Trump campaign rally will include representatives of some of the largest farms in the state, as well as an employee of the largest agricultural water district in the country, the Westlands Water District.

Westlands Deputy General Manager Johnny Amaral, a former chief of staff to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), said he helped organize the meeting on his own time.

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"My involvement in this has nothing to do with Westlands," he said. "This is as a private citizen trying to put farmers together to tell the story that the water shortages faced in California are not due to drought."

Westlands is among the water agencies supporting legislation, H.R. 2898, by Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) that would loosen environmental restrictions on how much water can be pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to parched agricultural communities in the Central Valley and municipalities farther south. Language from the bill was inserted into the energy bill that passed the House yesterday and is headed for a conference committee with the Senate (E&E Daily, May 26).

Another Valadao bill that was heard in a House Natural Resources subcommittee this week would approve a controversial settlement to solidify Westlands’ water rights and forgive roughly $350 million in debt in exchange for resolving legal claims over salt- and selenium-impaired farmland (E&E Daily, May 25).

Amaral said one of the other attendees of the Trump meeting will be the wife of John Harris, who owns Harris Ranch, the largest cattle-raising operation in California.

"I’m going to do everything I can to get every candidate to understand these issues and hopefully champion these issues," Amaral said. He said he had reached out to "every single campaign," including Hillary Clinton’s but had not gotten a meeting. "I have my feelings about what the other candidates will do based on what other people in their parties do," he said. Amaral said he missed former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Fresno on Monday because he had been in Washington, D.C.

California House Democrats, who have been pushing back against the Valadao bills on the grounds that they would harm endangered fish and change the state’s water-rights pecking order, blasted the meeting. They also cited the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent $125,000 penalty against Westlands for overstating its financial security in 2010 and in a subsequent $77 million bond offering in 2012 (E&E Daily, April 15).

"Donald Trump, who continues to refuse to release his tax returns and show the public his personal accounting, will be sitting down with the perpetrators responsible for one of the largest municipal bond fraud cases in SEC history," said Democratic Reps. Jared Huffman and Grace Napolitano. "Westlands Water District’s self-described ‘Enron Accounting’ sounds a lot like Trump’s own smoke and mirrors. We’re sure that Westlands and Trump will have a lot to discuss given their similarly questionable financial history, with Westlands currently trying to line their pockets with a massive $375 million taxpayer bailout to keep themselves afloat.

"Furthermore, we are particularly interested in Westlands’ position on Trump’s plan to deport migrant farmworkers in California and the rest of the nation," they said. "While we don’t expect it, we of course welcome any constructive policy solutions from Trump on how he would handle California’s water crisis and issues facing Latino farmworkers, not simply scapegoating environmental laws or a feel-good meeting to discuss their use of corporate welfare over taco salads."

Amaral said Huffman should focus on his own constituency, which includes a large swath of the Northern California coast. "I’m sure they’d be thrilled to know he’s spending so much time obsessing about what an employee of Westlands Water District does in his spare time," he said.