Valley Voices

Westlands’ foes distort drainage compromise

Irrigated fields in the Westlands Water District border Interstate 5 and the parched Diablo Range beyond, west of Tranquility on June 12, 2015. Under a proposed settlement with the Obama administration, Westlands would be responsible for providing a water drainage system that Bureau of Reclamation promised to build in the 1960s.
Irrigated fields in the Westlands Water District border Interstate 5 and the parched Diablo Range beyond, west of Tranquility on June 12, 2015. Under a proposed settlement with the Obama administration, Westlands would be responsible for providing a water drainage system that Bureau of Reclamation promised to build in the 1960s. NYT

In an election year, despite the usual suspects rallying against anything that would help Valley agriculture, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources has taken an important step to advance bipartisan legislation codifying a settlement between the federal government and the Westlands Water District.

The settlement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, resolves a long-standing dispute arising from the federal government’s failure to provide drainage to lands served by the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project and provides a path forward for a meaningful solution to a vexing problem.

A bipartisan group of members of Congress and local elected officials from the affected area support the settlement and the implementing legislation. If passed, the legislation removes the matter from the courts and creates a process for developing productive uses for the damaged lands and managing drainage in the Westlands Water District.

But, true to form, the anti-farming activists and their reliable congressional allies are criticizing the Obama administration for the settlement; ironically, these groups and individuals routinely agree with the administration on many other issues.

Apparently, in their eyes any agreement with Westlands is wrong. Frustrated that the settlement does not eliminate more farming and that their initial misinformation tactics failed, the opponents are focused on mischaracterizing the legislation. This is a desperate act, and their efforts should be rejected by all stakeholders and rejected by Congress.

Political tactics aside, consider the administration’s reasons why the settlement is in the best interest of the country.

First, the settlement relieves the government from an obligation, with a potential taxpayer savings of more than $3.5 billion, and potential liability in ongoing litigation that the government projects could be in excess of $2 billion.

Second, the settlement transfers responsibility for drainage from the federal government to Westlands, which after decades of inaction by the government would finally start the process of resolving the drainage issue.

Finally, the settlement removes uncertainty for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands so both parties can pursue other water policy initiatives that will benefit the state.

The major terms of the settlement have been public for more than two years and have been thoroughly vetted by policy experts, elected officials and interested stakeholders. As is the case with any negotiation, both parties agreed to compromise – the Obama administration, in part, because the settlement relieved taxpayers of significant liability. For Westlands, the settlement closes the book on a long chapter of uncertainty around management of drainage water and drainage-affected lands.

In a political era where compromise is sometimes considered a dirty word, the fact that the administration and Westlands Water District came to a compromise agreement to solve these decades-old issues is one that should be applauded.

Settlements, by nature, require an evaluation of liability and the likelihood of prevailing at trial. Given the contentious debate between Westlands and the federal government over water supply issues, it is fair to say that both parties looked long and hard before reaching this settlement.

Let’s hope that Congress will act swiftly with this legislation. But let’s also hope that a successful settlement and legislative result will provide the encouragement for cooperation on water supply legislation.

When a major part of the country’s food supply is at stake and there are bipartisan solutions available, the country can’t afford to let obstructionists win.

Johnny Amaral is deputy general manager of external affairs for the Westlands Water District.

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