Congressional leaders and groups react to Westlands drainage settlement

Here are the reactions I have been able to find regarding the recent agreement between Westlands Water District and the Interior Department, listed in alphabetical order by organization or lead author name:

From the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), Food and Water Watch, and Restore the Delta:

thumbs down“The Westlands Water District has informed the media that an agreement has been signed between the Obama administration and the powerful Westlands Water District in the western San Joaquin Valley that would guarantee the district vast amounts of California’s water to sustain the irrigation of toxic soils filled with selenium. The agreement would settle litigation over an unfulfilled federal requirement to provide drainage while forgiving Westlands’ debt to U.S. taxpayers with an unconscionable sweetheart deal.

The agreement would increase the federal deficit by $340 million through forgiving Westland’s interest-free repayment obligations to the taxpayers for construction of the federal Central Valley Project. Westland’s current two-year water contract will be converted to a permanent contract for 890,000 acre-feet of water annually, further draining the Sacramento River watershed and Delta.

Under the agreement, 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. Congress must approve the agreement before it can be implemented.

“We are outraged that the Obama Administration has sold out California taxpayers and their water,” said Adam Scow, California Director of Food & Water Watch said. “This bad deal will allow corporate agribusinesses in Westlands to keep irrigating water-intensive almonds and pistachios on toxic land in the desert, mostly for export to China. We will work to defeat this taxpayer giveaway in Congress.”

In negotiating the deal, the Obama Administration has ignored previous calls by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and many others to retire over 300,000 acres of poisoned lands; instead, the deal will require only 100,000 acres of land retirement — less than Westlands has already retired voluntarily. The Environmental Working Group estimated that annual subsidies to Westlands range from $24 million to $110 million a year.

A better plan, outlined recently by EcoNorthwest, an independent economic analysis firm, found 300,000 acres of toxic land in the Westlands Water District and three adjacent water districts could be retired at a cost of $580 million to $1 billion. Retiring this land and curbing the water rights associated with it would result in a savings to California of up to 455,000 acre-feet of water – for reference, the City of Los Angeles uses 587,000 acre-feet in a typical year. This course of action would cost significantly less than Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to build a massive tunnel system to divert water from the Sacramento River that is also for the benefit of Westlands and other corporate agribusinesses.

Because most of the poisoned lands will remain available for irrigation, the salt and selenium drainage problem will continue but the U.S. Government will no longer have any role in its management.

Tom Stokely from the California Water Impact Network said, “Unlike the earlier proposals from the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration is making no demands of any kind as to how that drainage is managed, including no monitoring requirements, no performance standards, no ‘drainage plan’ for review or approval by state authorities, etc.  The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board does not require any monitoring for selenium discharges to groundwater, so desert growers in Westlands have been given a free pass to expand the pollution in the aquifers of the Western San Joaquin Valley in perpetuity with cheap water that is desperately needed by people in the source watershed.”

The disastrous consequences of industrial-scale cultivation of seleniferous lands became obvious in 1983, when thousands of migratory waterfowl were deformed or killed outright at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge due to deliveries of toxic drain water from Westlands Water District megafarms.

“The diversion of water from the Delta for Westlands Water District has significantly contributed to the destruction of the Delta’s fisheries and water quality for agriculture,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta. “Leaving this land in production will ensure perpetual taxpayer subsidy to agriculture’s wealthiest 1% and continued environmental destruction of fish, wildlife, water quality and air quality from desertification of salty lands. The Obama Administration is making a terrible mistake that will haunt us for generations to come.”

Read the EcoNorthwest Report

From Congressmembers Jim Costa and David Valadao:

thumbs up“Representatives Jim Costa (CA-16) and David G. Valadao (CA-21) announced their support for the settlement agreement reached by the United States Department of Justice and Westlands Water District on the San Luis Drainage Litigation.

“I am pleased that a settlement agreement has been reached because now, there is finally an end to years of frustration that began when the U.S. government determined it was not going to complete drainage service to the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project,” said Rep. Costa. “When water was brought to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, it was always understood that a long-term drainage solution would be necessary for the sustainable production of these fertile lands. The court, in its decision, acknowledged that the federal government had abrogated its responsibilities when the federal government determined that it would no longer pursue the completion of the drain. This agreement is a reasonable compromise considering the financial obligation that now faces the U.S. taxpayer. I support the final agreement and will do everything possible, working on a bipartisan basis, to ensure that enabling legislation is passed so that the President can sign a bill that protects the American taxpayer from this $3.5 billion fiscal burden.”

“This deal is the result of years of negotiations and compromise,” said Rep. Valadao. “While this agreement is not perfect, it has the potential to save billions in taxpayer dollars and resolve this issue in a responsible manner. I look forward to reviewing the settlement in the coming days and working with all Members of the California Delegation and the President to ensure this agreement makes its way through the legislative process.”

The settlement agreement reached between the United States and Westlands Water District resolves decades long of legal uncertainty surrounding the responsibility for providing drainage to lands that have been damaged on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.”

From Congressmembers John Garamendi, Mike Thompson, Mark DeSaulnier, and Doris Matsui:

thumbs down“Today, a group of four Members of Congress from Northern California sharply criticized the recent agreement negotiated between the Department of the Interior and the Westlands Water District in California’s Central Valley. The agreement, negotiated in secret with little public input or accountability, was designed to settle litigation over the need to provide drainage to selenium-impaired farmland, but is deeply flawed. It would guarantee Westlands a permanent water contract with no ongoing environmental review, potentially leave taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, and provide inadequate oversight over the drainage issue the agreement was designed to settle.

“I am deeply concerned by the secrecy and lack of accountability in this agreement,” said Congressman John Garamendi of California’s 3rd District. “This agreement will have a significant environmental and financial impact on California’s economy and environment. It forgives hundreds of millions of dollars that the district owes the government, and it might give Westlands even greater access to our water supply. But it will end up rammed through Congress with hardly any time for public input or scrutiny.”


“In short, this agreement is a bad deal,” said Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA). “This deal, negotiated in secret, gives Westlands a permanent water contract, among other concessions, which precludes any further environmental review or contract renewals.  In return, Westlands will retire 100,000 acres of farmland, but that still leaves nearly 300,000 acres of impaired lands open to irrigation, opening the door to further pollution of our rivers and streams.  The agreement includes no stipulations for oversight of drainage operations and no metrics by which to measure Westland’s compliance.  While this brings an end to a long-standing dispute that had to be resolved, the concessions of this agreement go too far, placing our communities, water supply, and environment at risk.”

“I am troubled that the settlement does not fully address underlying drainage concerns, does not retire enough of the drainage impaired-lands, and may result in reduced water allocations for other Central Valley Project Contractors, including residents of my Congressional District. The settlement deserves a thoughtful and thorough evaluation before it is voted on in the House of Representatives,” said Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA).

“The Department of Interior settlement agreement with the Westlands Water District is a short-term resolution of the legal problems between the parties,” said Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA). In the long run, however, the settlement will allow Westlands to keep farming the same land with the same drainage problems, but now their water rights are in perpetuity. How does this help solve California’s water problems?  Simply put, it doesn’t, it just perpetuates them. The Department of Interior can do better by holding federal water users accountable.”

Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA) have also expressed their concerns about the agreement in separate statements. Congress must still approve the agreement, but a vote has not yet been scheduled.

From Congressman Jerry McNerney:

thumbs down“Congressman Jerry McNerney (CA-09) issued the following statement in response to the drainage settlement between Westlands Water District and the U.S. federal government approved today:

“This settlement between Westlands Water District and the Department of the Interior is nothing short of alarming. It’s a ‘sweetheart deal’ negotiated without transparency – resulting in an outrageous windfall for Westlands regardless of how much affected land is ultimately retired. The settlement forgives Westlands’ massive $350 million debt owed to the government and taxpayers while giving them an advantageous, no-need-to-review contract that could improve the water deliveries they receive from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and further devastate the Delta’s fragile ecosystem.

“Westlands will also not be required to meet specific performance measures for how the land will be managed moving forward – meaning that the drainage problems at the heart of this matter could continue to contaminate farmland and injure wildlife. It’s important that water agencies and stakeholders are aware of what Westlands is getting out of this deal and the troubling precedent that this could set for the future. The next stop for this settlement is Congress, where I will strongly oppose it and ask the tough questions necessary when California’s largest and very profitable water district is absolved of its obligations at the expense of taxpayers and the environment.”

In July, Rep. McNerney led his colleagues in sending a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Commerce, requesting further information and a briefing on the proposed settlement.  The Department of the Interior responded in September with an hour-long briefing on Friday, September 11 for House members who sent the letter.”


Daily emailsGet the Notebook blog by email and never miss a post!

Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook’s aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email