San Joaquin Valley Congressmen are pushing legislation that could be one of the largest transfers of water rights in California history.
House Resolution 1769 by Rep. David Valadao, currently stalled in committee, purports to settle a legal dispute between Westlands Water District and the U.S. Dept. of the Interior over the development of a drainage system to funnel toxic waste water from Westside farms.
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As newspapers around the state have opined, the 2015 lawsuit settlement, negotiated in secret, looks more like a giveaway of water supplies without regard for the real-world consequences this bill would have on future water needs of California.
Many Westlands farmers have already benefited from a half century of more than a billion dollars in taxpayer aid. Unfortunately, few of those riches have trickled down to the poverty-stricken communities in the area. Delta defenders say it could harm their farmland and Delta fisheries.
Some people believe that a significant portion of Westlands should never have been irrigated in the first place. Portions of the Westlands have groundwater triple the saltiness of ocean water. During World War I Westside farmers discovered salt tolerant cotton grew well in the desert and more than a million acres were planted to cotton.
But within 30 years, Westlands farmers nearly depleted their groundwater supply and in desperation, formed the Westside Landowners Association to get federal support. In 1960, Congress approved a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation project to deliver Northern California water to Westlands.
At that time, 160 acres (320 for a husband and wife) was the limit for subsidized federal water, so the large landowners were told to sell off land in excess of those requirements. There was also a requirement that the farmers had to live on their land.
In 1964, National Land for People (NLP) was founded in Fresno. Its mission was to bring to light the fact that residency requirements and acreage limitations were not being enforced in California. In 1974, NLP attorneys sued the Department of the Interior for not enforcing the Reclamation Act.
NLP discovered, that two-thirds of the Westlands farmers did not live within 50 miles of their farms, and some of those farms controlled thousands of acres, not 320 acres each. The NLP won all the way to the Supreme Court in 1979.
Then in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and his administration worked with Congress to pass the Reclamation Reform Act. When the Act passed in 1982, it eliminated the residency requirement and increased the acreage limitation to 960 acres. Corporate landholdings expanded.
In the early 1980s, the unresolved drainage problem surfaced at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, an evaporation pond facility for Westlands drainwater. By 1982, hunters and biologists around Kesterson began to notice sick and dying wildlife.
By 1984, it was discovered the main culprit was selenium, a mineral widespread in western valley soils which can be toxic to wildlife and humans in doses as small as two parts per billion. Kesterson was closed in March 1985.
Once Kesterson was closed, the question became could a master drain be constructed economically and not harm adjacent small irrigation districts?
Westlands sued the federal government for failure to complete the drainage system for Westlands. The lawsuit dragged on for years. Then Westlands offered to take over the drainage problem in exchange for debt forgiveness for monies Westlands still owed for construction of the water project. Two years ago the U.S. settled the Westlands lawsuit. That brings us to H.R. 1769, which critics contend:
▪ . Could give Westlands annual water deliveries up to 895,000 acre-feet. Critics say the settlement could trigger lawsuits by other irrigation districts with water rights senior to Westlands. Public trust advocates say the Valadao bill does not have language to block Westlands from selling some of its water supply on the open market at big profits.
▪ Forgive about $350 million that the district still owes taxpayers for Westlands’ share of the cost of the Central Valley Project that delivers water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Westlands.
▪ Transfer ownership of millions of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded buildings and infrastructure.
▪ Provides no monitoring or performance standards on Westlands’ management of the drainage problem.
▪ Provide for the retirement of only 100,000 acres of salty land instead of the 200,000 acres that experts felt to be a minimum requirement to ameliorate the drainage problem.
In summary, there are no safeguards for the environment or taxpayers. This is a bad deal for California and America. Meanwhile, salt continues to accumulate under Westlands farms. Some of us remember what happened to Mesopotamia.