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Sweet deal for Westlands; sour for Delta

09/14/15 -- The Obama Administration is expected to sign a binding agreement today with the powerful Westlands Water District in the Western San Joaquin Valley that would guarantee the district vast amounts of California’s water to sustain the irrigation of toxic soils filled with selenium.

According to the California Water Impact Network, Food & Water Watch and Restore the Delta critics, the agreement would settle litigation over an unfulfilled federal requirement to provide drainage while forgiving Westlands’ debt to U.S. taxpayers with an unconscionable sweetheart deal.

The agreement would increase the federal deficit by $340 million through forgiving Westland’s interest-free repayment obligations to the taxpayers for construction of the federal Central Valley Project. Westland’s current two-year water contract will be converted to a permanent contract for 890,000 acre-feet of water annually, further draining the Sacramento River watershed and Delta.

Under the agreement, water would be provided at lower prices, without acreage limits, and with permanent entitlements. These terms will lead to ever-increasing water deficits for California’s communities, economy, and environment. Congress must approve the agreement before it can be implemented.

“We are outraged that the Obama Administration has sold out California taxpayers and their water,” said 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. We will work to defeat this taxpayer giveaway in Congress.”

In negotiating the deal, the Obama Administration has ignored previous calls by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and many others to retire over 300,000 acres of poisoned lands; instead, the deal will require only 100,000 acres of land retirement -- less than Westlands has already retired voluntarily. The Environmental Working Group estimated that annual subsidies to Westlands range from $24 million to $110 million a year.

A better plan, outlined recently by EcoNorthwest, an independent economic analysis firm, found 300,000 acres of toxic land in the Westlands Water District and three adjacent water districts could be retired at a cost of $580 million to $1 billion. Retiring this land and curbing the water rights associated with it would result in a savings to California of up to 455,000 acre-feet of water – for reference, the City of Los Angeles uses 587,000 acre-feet in a typical year. This course of action would cost significantly less than Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to build a massive tunnel system to divert water from the Sacramento River that is also for the benefit of Westlands and other corporate agribusinesses.

Because most of the poisoned lands will remain available for irrigation, the salt and selenium drainage problem will continue but the U.S. Government will no longer have any role in its management.

Tom Stokely from 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. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board does not require any monitoring for selenium discharges to groundwater, so desert growers in Westlands have been given a free pass to expand the pollution in the aquifers of the Western San Joaquin Valley in perpetuity with cheap water that is desperately needed by people in the source watershed.”

The disastrous consequences of industrial-scale cultivation of seleniferous lands became obvious in 1983, when thousands of migratory waterfowl were deformed or killed outright at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge due to deliveries of toxic drain water from Westlands Water District megafarms.

“The diversion of water from the Delta for Westlands Water District has significantly contributed to the destruction of the Delta’s fisheries and water quality for agriculture,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta. “Leaving this land in production will ensure perpetual taxpayer subsidy to agriculture’s wealthiest 1% and continued environmental destruction of fish, wildlife, water quality and air quality from desertification of salty lands. The Obama Administration is making a terrible mistake that will haunt us for generations to come.”

Read the EcoNorthwest Report



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