California Water District to Handle Valley Drainage

By Stephen Siciliano

Sept. 17 — Westlands Water District in California and the Interior Department have reached a settlement whereby the local entity will assume the federal agency's duty to drain land within its boundaries in exchange for debt forgiveness.

Westlands said the deal represented a “fair and equitable” solution to decades of litigation over the Bureau of Reclamation's responsibility to drain Westlands farms. The settlement was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California Sept. 16.

The settlement requires congressional approval to move forward and faces strong opposition from conservation groups and at least one Democratic member of Congress.

Back in the 1960s, the San Luis Act called for the construction of agricultural drainage infrastructure on Westlands acreage served by the Central Valley Project. The job never surpassed the two-thirds completion point.

Local water sellers and landowners have been in court for 50 years sorting out whose job it was to build the drainage system and who is responsible for environmental impacts resulting from inadequate drainage.

The settlement, the district said in a statement, “acts as a global resolution, concluding decades of disputes over an environmental problem that has gone unaddressed.”

100,000 Acres to be Retired

Westlands is required under the settlement to retire 100,000 acres of land from cultivation and convert it to environmental uses. Westlands assumes responsibility for drainage within its boundaries, although those activities will be overseen by Interior.

In a 2007 record of decision, the cost of Interior's proposed alternative for completing the drainage system was estimated at $2.69 billion. Westlands said the commitment is now worth about $3.5 billion to the U.S. Treasury.

The agreement forgives a debt owed by Westlands to the federal government as repayment for construction of the Central Valley Project.

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) called the agreement a “sweetheart deal.” He said Westlands was shedding $350 million in debt to the U.S. government under the agreement.

The arrangement contains, McNerney said, “an advantageous, no-need-to-review contract that could improve the water deliveries they [Westlands] receive from the San Joaquin-Sacramento delta and further devastate the delta's fragile ecosystem.”

McNerney promised to “strongly oppose it” when it comes to Congress for approval.

To contact the report on this story: Stephen Siciliano in Los Angeles at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at mailto:%20lpearl@bna.com