Lawmakers behind emergency bill soaked up campaign money from water company

House members backing emergency California drought legislation that just cleared the chamber have collected a steady stream of campaign contributions from a company seen as a leading beneficiary of the measure.

People tied to Westlands Water District, a wholesaler supplying irrigation water to farms on about 600,000 arid acres in the Golden State's San Joaquin Valley, in the last two election cycles have given nearly $103,000 to five House members behind H.R. 5781, according to an E&E Daily analysis of records from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The money went to the re-election efforts of bill sponsor Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and to co-sponsors Tom McClintock, Devin Nunes and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, all of whom are California Republicans, and Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.). The contributions came from Westlands employees and its company board members -- including the board president and vice president -- along with their family members and business partners.

Westlands-connected people also gave money to a political action committee, California Westside Farmers, which in turn contributed to the same House member campaigns.

The five lawmakers received a total $60,000 from the PAC from 2011 through this year. The committee takes in contributions from other farming interests beyond Westlands. People linked to the company gave nearly $54,000 to the PAC in the last two cycles. The campaign contributions came as Westlands spent $1.2 million on lobbying in 2013 and 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.


"They're giving to members of the House and Senate who they think will carry their water for them ... members that tend to do what the donors ask of them," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, an alliance of 14 fishing organizations along the California coast that opposes H.R. 5781.

Westlands, Grader said, is "probably the big beneficiary" of Valadao's bill. "This water bill, it's not about drinking water quality" or getting water to poor communities that lack supplies. "This is on behalf of the real big growers who stand to make a lot of money," he said.

Thomas Birmingham, general manager for Westlands, said that the company does not make direct political contributions.

"I do not know whether its employees have made contributions, and if so to whom," he said. Birmingham did not address the issue of board member contributions.

"The California Westside Farmers political action committee does make contributions to candidates at the local, state and national level, generally to candidates who support policies that will help sustain irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley," he said. "Contributions have been made to candidates from virtually every region of the country on both sides of the aisle."

The drought legislation passed the House on Tuesday, 230-182, though it is unlikely to get a vote in the Senate before Congress' expected adjournment this week. Valadao has said the bill is "aimed at providing short-term relief from California's water crisis."

The bill would allow increased pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That would mean more allocations for companies, including Westlands, that have low priority in the state's water-rights law hierarchy. That system prioritizes those that were first in line with privileges preceding 1914. Westlands is a junior rights holder behind those people.

The company is seen as a potential winner if the bill passes because it's one of the biggest water wholesalers. Its clients, which include pistachio and almond growers, operate in a typically dry region and need to buy imported water.

Westlands also been the most aggressive, Grader said, in pursuing "every bit of water they can get." The company also has been on the forefront of fighting to have the state's water laws changed, he said.

Birmingham has previously said that Westlands is one of 29 Central Valley Project water service contractors that potentially would benefit from the legislation. Agencies that receive water from the State Water Project also would be helped, he said (E&E Daily, Dec. 3).

Fishermen groups and environmental organizations oppose the bill because the pumping would threaten fish, including the fall run chinook salmon, Grader said. That would hurt local fishing and "communities it supports up and down the coast," he said.

Democrat leads in money received

Of the bill sponsor and co-sponsors, Democrat Costa, who represents parts of Fresno and Merced, has received the most money from Westlands and the PAC. He took in $44,000 from people affiliated with Westlands and $15,000 from the committee.

Costa in an email said that the legislation "benefits multiple water agencies on the east side and west side of the San Joaquin Valley, including the water agencies within the 16th district of California that I represent."

"It's important to note that the primary beneficiary of this legislation is not a water agency, it's the people who do not have the access to water that drives the economy of the San Joaquin Valley," Costa said. "There are homes in the Valley that don't have water coming out of the tap as a result of the loss of surface water supplies.

"If this legislation were to become law, it would allow water districts that would currently receive no water to possibly get some water during significant rainstorms, providing it does not result in additional adverse effects on endangered species," he added.

Valadao in the last two cycles received $32,449 from those linked to Westlands. He also was a top recipient of the California Westside Farmers PAC's money, winning $20,000 total. Valadao's office did not respond to requests for comment.

McCarthy received $10,000 total from the PAC, as well as $9,500 directly from Westlands' people.

"To even suggest Congressman McCarthy's policy positions are influenced by anything other than the best interests of the constituents of California's 23rd congressional district is insulting and false," Matt Sparks, McCarthy's press secretary, said in an email. "California is facing the worst drought in 1,200 years and the House of Representatives has been steadfast in its efforts to achieve a solution to this water crisis that has led to barren fields, drastic water shortages, and high unemployment throughout the Valley."

Nunes took in $15,100 from people with Westlands ties and $5,000 from the PAC.

"Fighting to deliver water to Central Valley farms and families that have been decimated by decades of leftist water policies is not a conflict of interest -- it's called representative government," Jack Langer, Nunes' director of communications, said in an email. "If you want to speculate on who is buying influence, you should look at the enormous sums of money that radical environmental groups have contributed to Democrats who have opposed all attempts to resolve the water crisis."

California Westside Farmers gave McClintock $10,000 in the most recent campaign cycle. He received another $2,000 from Westlands' employees. McClintock's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Doug La Malfa (R-Calif.), another co-sponsor of the bill, received $2,500 from the PAC in 2014. He did not receive money from people tied to Westlands.

"Not only do I not know who has or hasn't supported his campaign efforts, we are working in what we believe to be the best interest of our communities" and will do so regardless of campaign contributions, said Kevin Eastman, La Malfa's water policy staffer. "Any insinuation otherwise is off-base."

Green group gives to Democrats

Several of the lawmaker aides noted that environmental opponents of water law reforms also give campaign contributions. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations does not make political contributions. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has spoken out against the Valadao measure, gave $124,250 total in the 2014 cycle and $213,606 in 2012 -- but wasn't especially active in California.

Top NRDC recipients this year included the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Two years ago, the top recipients were President Obama's re-election campaign and the DNC Services Corp., part of the Democratic National Committee. NRDC advocates on a swath of green issues beyond water.

Defenders of Wildlife, which also has criticized the bill, gave $15,800 total in 2014 and $234,350 in 2012. Top allocations this cycle were $7,500 to the Senate campaign of Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.); $1,250 to Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who lost his re-election bid; and $1,000 each to the failed Senate campaign of Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn (D), who unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat in Georgia.

Westlands workers, board members and their affiliates have provided campaign money beyond those with their names on the drought bill. In the 2012 and 2014 cycles, they also gave to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Simpson, (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies. Westlands' people contributed $7,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, $4,800 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $2,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Feinstein received $17,500 in the last two cycles from those tied to Westlands, plus $10,000 from the California Westside Farmers PAC. She had been the Senate's lead negotiator on trying to reach agreement with the House on California drought legislation, but canceled talks just before the Thanksgiving recess amid criticisms about a closed-door process that left House Democrats and environmental groups in the dark (E&E Daily, Dec. 3).

Feinstein's office declined to comment on the contributions. She has said that she has concerns about the House legislation.

"There are parts of the House bill introduced last week that I support, including provisions from legislation unanimously passed by the Senate in May and other provisions that were agreed upon over the past few months through bipartisan negotiation," Feinstein said in a statement. "But there are several other provisions that would waive environmental protections that need to be changed before I could support them. I have said all along that I will not support a bill that would waive these protections, and that remains true today."

Grader said that Feinstein is in a different situation from the House members on the bill because she receives campaign contributions from all over the state, including from a large number of environmental donors.

"She's not as willing to waive all of the environmental laws," Grader said. "Her staff flatly told me, the Endangered Species Act -- we're not going to do anything to override it."

Twitter: @annecmulkern | Email: amulkern@eenews.net

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