Rep. McNerney Issues Statement in Response to Westlands Settlement

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Washington – Congressman Jerry McNerney (CA-09) issued the following statement in response to the drainage settlement between Westlands Water District and the U.S. federal government approved today:

“This settlement between Westlands Water District and the Department of the Interior is nothing short of alarming. It’s a ‘sweetheart deal’ negotiated without transparency – resulting in an outrageous windfall for Westlands regardless of how much affected land is ultimately retired. The settlement forgives Westlands’ massive $350 million debt owed to the government and taxpayers while giving them an advantageous, no-need-to-review contract that could improve the water deliveries they receive from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and further devastate the Delta’s fragile ecosystem.

“Westlands will also not be required to meet specific performance measures for how the land will be managed moving forward – meaning that the drainage problems at the heart of this matter could continue to contaminate farmland and injure wildlife. It’s important that water agencies and stakeholders are aware of what Westlands is getting out of this deal and the troubling precedent that this could set for the future. The next stop for this settlement is Congress, where I will strongly oppose it and ask the tough questions necessary when California’s largest and very profitable water district is absolved of its obligations at the expense of taxpayers and the environment.”

In July, Rep. McNerney led his colleagues in sending a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Commerce, requesting further information and a briefing on the proposed settlement.  The Department of the Interior responded in September with an hour-long briefing on Friday, September 11 for House members who sent the letter.

Restore the Delta issued the following response on Monday:

SWEETHEART SETTLEMENT FOR WESTLANDS WATER DISTRICT EXPECTED TUESDAY
Horrendous Deal for Taxpayers and California

Washington, DC – The Obama Administration is expected to sign a binding agreement on Tuesday (9/15/15) 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. 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