Media Release: Obama Selling Out California to Westlands Water District- Secret Deal Forgives Government Debt

October 16, 2014

For Immediate Release

Obama Selling Out California to Westlands Water District

Secret Deal Forgives Government Debt, Allows Continued Pollution, and Locks in Subsidized Water Deliveries to Corporate Farms

Obama administration officials have reached a settlement with the largest irrigation district in the United States that forgives nearly $400 million in debt, provides massive quantities of subsidized water to corporate agriculture without acreage limitations, and allows continued pollution of state waterways. The agreement is still subject to approval by Congress, but it appears that California Senator Dianne Feinstein will shepherd the legislation through Congress.

The deal is the result of the settlement of a lawsuit filed by Westlands Water District against the federal government for failing to provide agricultural drainage service. For decades, the district – which consists of fewer than 600 corporate farms but uses more water than the city of Los Angeles– has irrigated its holdings with taxpayer-subsidized water delivered by the federal Central Valley Project.

The district’s croplands contain large amounts of selenium – a toxic element that leaches from the soil when farmers flush their lands with CVP water to remove excess salt. The district then discharges this tainted runoff to Central Valley waterways.   When the federal government prepared an Environmental Impact Statement in 2007 to stop this pollution, environmentalists and fisheries advocates were heartened by the prospect of permanent land retirement.   Of the several alternatives presented, federal officials seemed to favor those that would retire significant portions of seleniferous lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported an alternative that would have retired 379,000 acres of poisoned land. The settlement’s draft Environmental Impact Statement identified an option that would retire 306,000 acres as the environmentally preferred alternative, although the final number was reduced to 194,000 acres.

Unfortunately, the land retirement program folded after about 115,000 acres were retired.  Continued litigation by Westlands and some of its landowners resulted in the federal courts’ acknowledgement that the federal government has a duty to provide drainage service.  As a consequence, the deal reached behind closed doors looks nothing like that promoted by the draft EIS; indeed, it is worse for taxpayers, fisheries and the environment than proposals offered by the George W. Bush administration, which was hardly an advocate for equitable water distribution and environmental protection.

The high (or rather, low) points of the agreement include:

- Forgiveness of nearly $400 million owed by Westlands to the federal government for capital repayment of Central Valley Project debt.

- Minimal land retirement consisting of 100,000 acres; the amount of land Westlands claims it has already retired (115,000 acres) will be credited to this final figure. Worse, the Obama administration has stated it will be satisfied with 100,000 acres of “permanent” land retirement.

- A permanent CVP contract for 890,000 acre-feet of water a year exempt from acreage limitations.

- The public has no input over the settlement other than influencing Congress to change it.

Water policy reform advocates have condemned this secret agreement, which was reached without their participation.

“This ‘settlement’ is essentially a wish list by Westlands,” said Tom Stokely, spokesman for the California Water Impact Network. “It’s as though Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham dictated his terms to the federal government. It locks in the destructive practices of the district, it continues to subsidize Big Agriculture with taxpayer money, and it poses a long-term threat to both California’s environment and the state’s water supply. It is crony capitalism at its worse, and it demonstrates once again the corrosive power of money and corporate influence in Washington.”

Bill Jennings, the chairman and executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, observed the deal is bad for many water contractors, not just fisheries and the environment.

“It would give Westlands a permanent water contract before all Endangered Species Act litigation is completed,” said Jennings. “In effect, this gives Westlands a leg up over other south-of-Delta contractors.”

Summing up the case against the pact, AquAlliance executive director Barbara Vlamis said congressional approval of the deal “will create a permanent demand for northern California water that will be used to create devastating pollution from land that never should have been irrigated in the first place. It assures continuation of a policy that is destructive, beneficial only to the few and powerful, and ultimately unsustainable.”