In a settlement with grave implications for the imperiled environment of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the Interior Department on September 15 turned over to the Westlands Water District the responsibility for cleaning up toxic irrigation drainage water that has damaged 285,000 acres of farmland within its boundaries. The deal would guarantee Westlands, located in western Fresno and Kings counties, a supply in perpetuity of taxpayer-subsidized water drawn from the Trinity River and the Delta, eliminating a previous requirement to renew the contract every two years. The district would also be relieved of a $375-million-dollar interest-free debt to taxpayers for construction costs of the Central Valley Project, the massive federal water delivery system.
The Interior Department touted the agreement, which requires congressional approval by January 2017, as a savings to taxpayers of $3.5 billion — the estimated cost of cleaning up the district’s toxic drainage. This is misleading, however, because if the federal government had cleaned up the drainage problem as required by the courts, Reclamation law would have obligated Westlands to reimburse the government (and the taxpayers) for the entire cost of the cleanup.
The soil in nearly half of Westlands’ 600,000 acres contains shallow, salty groundwater that impedes crop growth. All of the land within Westlands is plagued by high amounts of mineral salts and selenium, a naturally-occurring trace element left by an ancient sea. The salts are harmful to crops, and selenium in irrigation drainage can kill and cause severe birth defects in fish and wildlife.
Conservation groups quickly denounced the agreement for ensuring Westlands vast amounts of inexpensive federal water to irrigate toxic land. Westlands would continue drawing water from the Trinity River and the Delta, an environment already damaged by excessive diversion, with no limits on the size of farms eligible to receive it. The California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), Food and Water Watch, and Restore the Delta summarized its impact: “Water would be provided at lower prices, without acreage limits, and with permanent entitlements. These terms will lead to ever-increasing water deficits for California’s communities, economy, and environment.”
The groups also questioned Westlands’ ability to accomplish the clean-up. Lloyd Carter, president of the California Save Our Streams Council, told the Fresno Bee, “It’s ridiculous that Westlands even claims it can solve the drainage problem when federal agencies, spending hundreds of millions of dollars, did not find an economical and environmentally safe solution.”
The settlement in fact contains no performance standards for Westlands to meet, requiring only that the district become “legally responsible for the management of drainage water” within its boundaries. Kate Poole, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which intervened in litigation over the dispute, pointed out to the Los Angeles Times, “So there’s no indication that they have to do something more than what’s currently happening [with drainage] or that they have to do it by a certain time.”
Environmentalist Carter observed that the inexpensive water provides a further windfall for Westlands, as it can sell its unused supply to urban districts for a sizable profit. Indeed, a very real possibility exists of Westlands transferring its entire water contract to such a district for a huge financial gain. The impact would be devastating to the Delta if the transfer were a permanent one, since even in years of drought urban water districts are guaranteed 50% of their contracted water delivery, while agricultural districts like Westlands can be denied 100% of their water if there is real scarcity, as has occurred in the past two years. This would result in hundreds of thousands of additional acre-feet of water being drawn from the Delta each year during a protracted drought.
Local Congressman Jerry McNerney (CA-09) called the settlement a “sweetheart deal” that gives Westlands “an advantageous, no-need-to-review contract that could improve the water deliveries they receive from the Delta and further devastate its fragile ecosystem.”
Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at U.C. Davis, observed to the Los Angeles Times, “My hunch is that the more Congress digs into the details of this, the more controversial the settlement is going to get. And the less are the prospects for a quick and easy congressional ratification.”