Back in the 1960s, when what would eventually become the largest agricultural water district in the country sought a pipeline to the arid Central Valley from outside sources, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed to build a drain system for the salty, heavy-metal-tainted irrigation water yielded in those parts.
They only built half the drain, creating the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, and that was shut down by the courts in 1985 because the water was too toxic. Drainage has been a mess ever since, legally and environmentally, as 700 growers (on 600,000 acres of land in Fresno County and Kings County) fight for the right to federal water for growing water-sucking almond trees in the desert.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of the Interior and Westlands Water District announced settlement of a decade-long fight over managing drainage and already-tainted farmland to meet environmental standards. Details were not immediately available, but it was said to closely follow a preliminary agreement in 2013 that had, and still has, environmentalists howling.
“We are outraged that the Obama Administration has sold out California taxpayers and their water,” Adam Scow, California Director of Food & Water Watch said. “This bad deal will allow corporate agribusinesses in Westlands to keep irrigating water-intensive almonds and pistachios on toxic land in the desert, mostly for export to China.”
Congressman Jerry McNerney (D-California), who represents residents in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, told the Associated Press it was a “sweetheart deal.”
The settlement, which must be approved by Congress, was negotiated in secret (the water district prefers “private”). But the contentious elements are pretty obvious, with the estimated $3.5-billion drain cleanup at its heart.
The Bureau would turn over management of the drain to Westlands, replace the district’s two-year renewable contracts with an open-ended nonreviewable one, forgive Westlands’ $350-million debt for its share of building the Central Valley Project (CVP) that brings them water, remove 960-acre limits on farm size eligibility for subsidized water and retire 100,000 acres of badly degraded farmland.
It does not appear that Westlands has a plan for cleaning up the land or that the bureau has a plan for overseeing it. Tom Stokely of the California Water Impact Network said:
“Unlike the earlier proposals from the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration is making no demands of any kind as to how that drainage is managed, including no monitoring requirements, no performance standards, no ‘drainage plan’ for review or approval by state authorities, etc.”
Last December, Congressman George Miller (D-California) told the Times that Westlands was “never going to do the drainage. They're going to put [the land] into solar or whatever they want to do. They're just squeezing the government.”