September 18, 2015
The Department of Interior did their best naive teenager impression when they negotiated a deal withWestlands Water District who channeled their inner used car salesman. Not surprisingly, Westlands got a sweet deal while DOI turned Uncle Sam into Uncle Sucker. In the end the government got little other than relieved of an empty threat, out several hundred million dollars, and promised to sell a ton of subsidized water for the next 50-100 years to a greedy group that could use it to grow crops, resell it, or whatever – all this in the midst of record drought. Wow.
Even amongst water districts, which have been forming to provide irrigation water to areas in California since the late 1800s, Westlands is known as a big bully. Quick to litigate, the 600,000 acre water district is young, only forming after the Bureau of Reclamation stupidly started providing them with federal water in the 1960s. Stupidly because the land that makes up the Westlands Water District is rife with salts and selenium which, after years of irrigation, turn productive land into barren land. Then, when excess water is drained, create a toxic soup that turned the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge into a freak show of deformed birds.
After the Kesterson debacle, DOI walked away until a court ruled that providing water to Westlands meant that the U.S. also had to provide a system to drain that water. That started the machinations. At various times there were courts involved, negotiations, and deals. In 2007, DOI estimated providing drainage to Westlands would cost $2.7 billion – $2.7 billion that wasn’t authorized by Congress, but even if it was Westlands (the beneficiaries) would have to repay over time. This plan even included Westlands retiring 200,000 acres (out of the district’s roughly 600,000 acres) that would reduce drainage issues.
That deal didn’t happen and now we have this highway robbery before us. Westlands would absolve the U.S. of providing drainage, promising to take care of it by themselves. Or not, or whatever. The roughly $350 million Westlands owes taxpayers for capital costs on their water project would be forgiven and they would gain ownership of all the pipes, pumps, and other federal property in the water district. They would retire a paltry 100,000 acres of land, much of which reportedly has already been retired anyway. And they would get their water, with a new contract that bases its current apportionment on the inflated contract totals of 50 years ago. But everyone thinks that the current drought and future climate change will inevitably lead to all water users getting smaller contract amounts in the future. Not Westlands, theirs will be locked in by this binding settlement – and by law (yes, Congress has to approve the deal which may be its only saving grace).
Of course Westlands doesn’t actually have to do anything about its own drainage. It could continue to grow until they can’t anymore and start selling the water. Or they could use the affected lands for solar energy development and sell the water. Or they could retire more acres and grow more profitable crops on a smaller subset of lands. The point is, they are getting a sweetheart deal because DOI is not smart enough to understand they’re being snookered. Or they just don’t care. At the end of the day, taxpayers are being ripped off because DOI gave away the store to the country’s largest irrigation district and its wealthy agricultural corporations.