C-WIN Responds to Mike Wade's Comment on ECONorthwest Report: Estimated Costs to Retire Drainage Impaired Lands in the San Luis Unit

Article by Tom StokelyJuly 17, 2015

Response to Mike Wade on Retirement of Drainage Impaired Lands San Luis Unit of the CVP

Mike Wade seriously mischaracterizes reality in his comments on the recent ECONorthwest report on the cost of retiring drainage impaired lands in the Westlands Water District. It is apparent that Mr. Wade is not well informed about the status of drainage impaired lands in the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project, including the Westlands, Panoche, Pacheco, and San Luis water districts.

The lands in question are indeed “distressed.” The Bureau of Reclamation is under court order pursuant to the San Luis Act of 1960 to provide “drainage service” to approximately 380,000 acres of “Westside” land characterized by shallow groundwater and high levels of salts, boron, and selenium.  The salt and boron inhibit plant growth and the selenium harms fish and wildlife.

The Bureau of Reclamation published an extensive Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision evaluating options aimed at solving the drainage problem.  They selected an alternative that would attempt to use an untested Rube Goldberg process of evaporation ponds, digesters, reuse areas, and reverse osmosis to remove the contaminants in the drain water.  Unfortunately, the $2.7 billion plan is not cost-effective, even by Reclamation’s economic analysis. It would require a substantial increase in subsidies and a Congressional reauthorization to spend another $2+ billion.  In addition, two small pilot treatment plants have failed to work, with the most recent one shutting down in 2014 after only one month of operation.  This plan, in short, cannot be sanctioned in good faith; if sanctioned, it will be impossible to implement.

Even Reclamation’s economic analysis showed that retirement of all of the drainage impaired lands in Westlands was the most cost-effective solution, providing a net economic benefit of $3.64 million/year for 50 years.  The selected alternative retired less land and had a net loss of $10.15 million/year.  According to the US Geological Survey, “Land retirement is a key strategy to reduce drainage because it can effectively reduce drainage to zero if all drainage-impaired lands are retired.”

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Reclamation has brokered a settlement to the long-standing litigation that would not retire any additional land, forgives hundreds of millions of dollars in interest-free debt, provides a permanent water contract, waives payments, eliminates acreage limitations, increase subsidies, and allows unbridled discharge of trillions of gallons of highly contaminated agricultural pollution, and allows drainage-impaired lands to accumulate salt to the point that nothing grows, with the barren soil becoming an air quality health hazard.  Ultimately, Westlands will be able to market the water bought by the taxpayers to cities at great profit while leaving behind a toxic legacy.

The ECONorthWest report shows that not only is land retirement of these “distressed” agricultural lands at $750 million the most effective solution, but it points out that 455,000 acre-feet of Central Valley Project contract water could be eliminated by purchase of land and water rights, thereby reducing demand on an overallocated water supply.

Regarding Mr. Wade’s comment that the ECONorthwest report describes the cost to “stop farming,” that’s not true. The report describes the cost of not irrigating the lands. The lands could still be used for dry land farming, grazing and solar energy development.

Regarding the cost of the land, there are unquestionably other agricultural lands in the San Joaquin Valley region that would obtain a better selling price than the estimates by ECONorthWest.  However, the San Luis Unit of the CVP has an unreliable water supply contract (they received zero CVP water in 2014 and 2015), and they are known to have drainage problems that inhibit crop growth and pose wildlife hazards.  Combined with dwindling groundwater and the possibility of expensive remediation to keep the land in production, these lands would clearly have a low value compared to other areas with more secure water supplies and without drainage problems.

Regarding the solutions that Mr. Wade says have been implemented in recent years, the Grasslands Bypass Project is being allowed to dump the pollution from the Grasslands area into Mud Slough and the San Joaquin River for 20 years, redirecting the impacts downstream, ultimately to the Bay-Delta estuary.  We always hear about salt problems at the Delta pumps, but what isn’t made clear is the fact that the Grasslands Bypass Project is the source of 36% of the salt load in the San Joaquin River and south Delta.  Yes, this large-scale pollution has been sanctioned and funded by various agencies, but that doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate policy.  In recent years, discharges have been reduced, but they closely correspond to land retirement and reduced water deliveries due to drought.   Giving Westlands more water from something like Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnels or the House of Representatives’ drought water bill will once again increase toxic discharges.

We therefore ask that the Obama Administration reject the settlement brokered by the Bureau of Reclamation.   Clearly, buying out these “distressed” lands and associated water contracts is the best buy for the taxpayers and is unmistakably the best thing for the environment and other California water users.   Mr. Wade has made a blatant, if unsuccessful, attempt to hide that truth.