Conflict Swirls Around San Joaquin Valley Irrigation Drainage Plan

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Westlands Water District Managing Director Thomas Birmingham following a House committee hearing on a proposed irrigation drainage agreement.

Mcclatchy

A proposal to resolve a long-standing San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage dispute between the Westlands Water District and the federal government upsets a Congress already stuck over other water battles in California.

The other complications surfaced Tuesday during a House of Representatives hearing that highlighted how the drainage proposal pits one area of ​​California against another, though, for a change, it unites Westlands with the Obama administration.

“We need to fix this problem,” Westlands Water District Managing Director Thomas Birmingham told lawmakers. “It’s a problem that has been getting worse for over 35 years. “

Skeptics, however, criticize the irrigation drainage proposal as unbalanced and reckless.

“There are red flags and smoking guns all over this subject,” said Representative Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “The interests of the Westlands Water District are elevated above the interests of taxpayers, the interests of the environment and the interests of other water users.

Highlighting the difficulties ahead, Home Office senior adviser John C. Bezdek revealed that the agency’s office of the inspector general is “currently involved in an investigation” which somewhat affects three others. smaller river basin districts north of Westlands.

Bezdek has not provided any further details about the investigation other than to add that it does not involve Westlands. But he said that as a result, the Obama administration has yet to take a position on related irrigation and drainage legislation affecting the so-called “northern districts.”

The proposals in question involve the responsibility of the federal government to construct facilities to remove drainage water from irrigated cropland in the San Joaquin Valley. Only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain terminated prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir.

Representative David Valadao’s main legislative proposal, R-Hanford, puts the 600,000-acre district of Westlands in charge of its own drainage. Westlands has also agreed to remove at least 100,000 acres of farmland, about a third of which has already been taken out of production.

In turn, Westlands would be forgiven for its investment debt owed for the construction of the Central Valley Project irrigation facilities, estimated at around $ 295 million. The government would no longer be responsible for building the drainage, saving an estimated $ 3.8 billion.

“This helps ensure that the lands of the Westlands Water District can continue to remain productive, while protecting the environment and freeing the federal government for potentially billions of dollars,” Valadao said of his bill.

A companion bill was not introduced in the Senate, where Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California pointed out that she was focusing on broader California water legislation before turning to the dispute over the drainage of irrigation. A Republican, Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, said Tuesday that “legitimate questions” about costs must be answered before the bill moves forward.

Other questions, Jerry Brown, general manager of the Contra Costa water district, told the water and electricity subcommittee of the House natural resources committee, including how Westlands will manage drainage , whether enough land is removed and how Westlands’ amended water claims will affect other CVPs. customers.

“We just don’t think this is the best deal, or even the best deal, for taxpayers,” said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

After the hearing, Representative Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, added his own “strong opposition” to the Westlands Bill.

A separate, but related bill, drafted by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, covers the watershed districts of San Luis, Panoche, and Pacheco, which lie north of Westlands. The three northern districts serve a total of approximately 102,000 acres in western Merced and Fresno counties.

The new legislation, introduced by Costa earlier this month, includes $ 70 million for salinity control efforts undertaken by the districts of San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco. It also relieves them of their debt owed for the construction of irrigation facilities and releases the ownership of the facilities to the districts.

The Federal Bureau of Reclamation, as in the case of the Westlands Agreement, is in turn released from its obligation to build a drainage system.

“The benefits to the United States are significant,” said Costa.

This story was originally published May 24, 2016 2:44 p.m.

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