Water & Drought

Conflicts swirl around San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage plan

Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham, following a House panel hearing on a proposed irrigation drainage deal.
Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham, following a House panel hearing on a proposed irrigation drainage deal. McClatchy

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.

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.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

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.

I am aware that the mere mention of Westlands Water District raises the blood pressure of many environmentalists and some members of Congress.

Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham

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.

We just don’t think this is the best deal, or even a good deal, for taxpayers.

Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense

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.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

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