Water & Drought

Election over, Westlands Water District may get win with controversial drainage plan

Work goes on next to a cotton field in the Westlands Water District, near Five Points.
Work goes on next to a cotton field in the Westlands Water District, near Five Points. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

The politically resurgent Westlands Water District is set to win House committee approval Wednesday of a big irrigation drainage plan that is opposed by Northern California’s Democrats.

Years in the making, the plan forgives a roughly $375 million debt owed by the nation’s largest irrigation district. The Rhode Island-sized district also locks in favorable terms on future water contracts and will retire some land. In return, the deal relieves the federal government of the multibillion-dollar obligation to construct irrigation drainage facilities for the San Joaquin Valley’s west side.

“In order to move forward with the settlement agreed to by both Westlands and the U.S. Department of Justice last year, this bill has to be passed by Congress,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said Tuesday. “Doing so will be a positive step in resolving a long-standing drainage dispute and will ultimately save taxpayers billions of dollars.”

The expected approval of Valadao’s irrigation drainage bill by the House Natural Resources Committee will come on mostly party lines, and could foreshadow other Westlands’ victories. It will not, however, be the final step.

“It’s such an enormous giveaway to powerful interests,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Tuesday. “A settlement is fine, but not a settlement that gives away the store to Westlands.”

The incoming Trump administration has appointed a Westlands lobbyist, David Bernhardt, to head the Interior Department transition team that will make recommendations on policies and personnel.

One of Bernhardt’s stated priorities has been “potential legislation regarding settlement of litigation” – which means the Valadao bill – according to lobbying registration records filed by Bernhardt’s firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Westlands paid the firm $245,000 last year, records show.

Another Westlands ally, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, has been appointed to the executive committee of Trump’s overall transition team. Nunes and Valadao also are leading a separate effort to secure a sweeping California water bill that steers more irrigation deliveries to farmers, authorizes new reservoirs and ends an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program.

The irrigation drainage bill almost certainly will pass the GOP-controlled House during the lame-duck congressional session expected to run into December. Its ultimate fate will likely be in the Senate’s hands, where both of California’s Democratic senators have remained noncommittal about a deal first unveiled in court in September 2015. Valadao introduced his bill last January.

On Tuesday, 10 months after Valadao’s bill became public, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said in a statement that “the most important thing is ensuring toxic drainage is properly treated and protecting taxpayer” and that she urged people to keep working toward that goal.

“This process has been going on for more than 20 years and needs to be solved,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday. “Both Westlands and the Interior Department know this, which is why they reached an agreement. I will watch what bill comes out of the House and review it carefully.”

The irrigation drainage deal was negotiated with the Obama administration, under pressure from a federal court ruling that imposed an unpalatable alternative of providing the irrigation drainage. The drainage was promised beginning with the 1960 legislation authorizing the Central Valley Project’s San Luis Unit, but only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain terminated prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir in Merced County.

Without drainage, otherwise fertile soil becomes poisoned by a build-up of salty water. The accumulation of selenium-tainted groundwater at Kesterson killed and deformed thousands of birds in the mid-1980s.

The bill 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 already has been taken out of production.

Separate legislation, authored by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, includes the smaller San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco water districts located north of Westlands in western Merced and Fresno counties in the irrigation drainage settlement. The three northerly districts serve a total of about 102,000 acres in western Merced and Fresno counties.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10