Editor's Note: There have been more than 1,000 California Agricultural Leadership Foundation graduates since the program was established more than 35 years ago. The two-year fellowship program provides individuals with a transformational leadership development experience. Two of its graduates are Riverdale, Calif., producer Dan Errotabere and Chowchilla, Calif., farmer Kole Upton. Both are very involved in key issues involving water. However, they found themselves on opposite sides of a highly charged water issue several months back. This column, developed by Amy Christensen, director of alumni relations and communication for the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, details how fellow ag leadership graduates resolved the issue using skills developed from the program. This is the first in a series of columns, Ag Leadership In Action, detailing important issues for California and the roles played by ag leadership graduates.

Bridge over troubled waters

By Dan Errotabere

I farm between Five Points and Huron on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. I have been in business with my brothers and mother since 1979 when my father passed away. We grow Pima cotton, wheat, alfalfa hay, cantaloupes, lettuce, almonds and garlic.

My interest in Westlands Water District has been about the role of water for western agriculture and working for its security.

When I took over as president of the Westlands Water District in 2002, I found myself at the center of a water storm unlike any I could imagine. In August 2000, we had filed a permit application with the State Water Resources Control Board requesting appropriation of water from the San Joaquin River. At the time, Westlands was at its wits end, and the move seemed like our only viable option.

After a 10-year-long agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation for 1.15 million acre-feet per year of Central Valley Project (CVP) Delta water, we had only received our full entitlement twice. According to that contract, it was up to Westlands' board to find alternative resources when the bureau fell short. Not an easy task in an area with limited groundwater and 600,000 acres in production.

Multifaceted

The board's approach was to be multi-faceted; continue working with the feds on improving our CVP entitlement, but also find a new source that could compensate for the deficiencies. I knew going into my presidency that the move on the San Joaquin water, and ultimately the Friant Water Users, would be controversial. However, I was looking at the bottom line — I was responsible for ensuring that Westlands farmers had water.

I think we expected backlash, but the overwhelming cry from the East Side of the Valley was unmistakable — we were viewed as backstabbers, folks not considering the bigger picture. The latter viewpoint is what really hit home for me. While I realized we needed to meet the needs of our farmers, the valley as a whole had to be considered. With that in mind, I called Kole to discuss the situation shortly after I took office.

Work things out

Having served on the California Wheat Commission together years before and both being Ag Leadership grads, there was an established relationship of mutual admiration that I hoped would ease tensions. After all, I had (and still have) the highest respect for Kole and acknowledged his predicament too. What we needed was to sit down as friends and work things out.

It took roughly eight months of talking before we finally were able to agree to a Memorandum of Understanding. Following that decision, Westlands dropped its permit application with the state and began focusing joint efforts on the federal negotiations. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and we were able to take a more progressive look at the valley's unified need for water.

Now Kole and I try to stay in regular contact with one another, support each other's efforts and take a united stance on the future of our water.

When friends are against you

By Kole Upton

I farm in almonds, pistachios, cotton, wheat and corn in Merced and Madera counties.

I have farmed for 34 years. My father helped bring surface water to our area of Merced County.

I became involved in Friant Water Users Authority in the 1990s because I believed it was the best organization to protect Chowchilla Water District's historical rights with other like-minded water organizations on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

I clearly remember when Dick Moss, Friant general manager came to me and said, “You are not going to believe what Westlands just did.” It was August 2000, and we were in the middle of some pretty heavy debates with the feds over water rights. Frustration levels were high and then Westlands up and files their permit application with the state to take San Joaquin River water. I can honestly say that Westlands' move was truly the last straw.

We had spent months trying to present a united front with the Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands goes behind our backs and file for one-third of our completely committed San Joaquin River water. It was such a slap in the face and whatever semblance of trust that had existed was completely gone. As far as we were concerned, this was war and required a full-scale, all-out attack.

Sought full support

The Friant Water Authority board began engaging city councils, county boards of supervisors, planning commissions, trade associations; you name it for complete, unilateral valley support. We felt Westlands' petition was not only underhanded, but hurt all farmers in general. The bottom line is that whenever farmers fight about water, someone is going to lose. If we are going to lose a fight, it should be with the outside world, not amongst ourselves.

When Dan took office is when things really started to turn around. We had served on the Wheat Commission together, had later interacted through Ag Leadership and ultimately developed respect for each other as farmers and friends. When he called, it was a sign that we as farmers could just sit down and talk things out — logically, without all the hubbub — and get down to business. With the help of Jean Sagouspe, an Ag Leadership classmate of mine, we were able to finally reach a Memorandum of Understanding that really outlined our different water sources. In the process, though, we began buying into the idea that the underlying problem was not going away.

We needed solutions to our water woes and our best bet was to work together to accomplish it.

Today we both are moving forward with a common cause and individual needs. We stay in touch and lend one another a hand when we tackle state and federal issues. We are committed to helping the Valley and the bigger picture, together, and avoiding future water catastrophes.