A reported federal investigation that’s stalled part of a California irrigation-drainage deal does not extend to the small San Luis Water District in western Fresno and Merced counties, a top district official said Wednesday.
Shedding some light on a case that’s been marked by private speculation and public ambiguity, San Luis Water District Board President Bill Diedrich said in an interview that the 60,000-acre district was not part of any probe.
“We have not been contacted,” Diedrich said. “None of our members or staff have been questioned.”
San Luis is one of three water agencies that together are dubbed the “Northerly Districts.” Along with the Panoche and Pacheco water districts, San Luis aims to finalize a package deal resolving a long-running dispute over the federal government’s failure to provide irrigation drainage.
A federal investigation has complicated completion of the Northerly Districts deal, according to statements and testimony at two congressional hearings, but details are scant concerning its scope, focus and duration.
A spokesman for the Pacheco district could not be reached Wednesday, while the president of the Panoche district said he couldn’t comment one way or another.
The Panoche Water District strongly supports reaching a legislative solution to the long-standing issue of the United States’ obligation to provide drainage service to the San Luis Unit.
Panoche Water District Board President John Bennett
If it ever gets out of limbo, the proposed deal would relieve the water districts of their remaining construction debt to the federal government while the districts would assume responsibility for providing the drainage needed to protect the viability of their cropland. Without drainage, salty water builds up beneath the surface of irrigated lands.
“It’s in the best interest of everyone that something gets done in 2017,” Diedrich said.
A related, albeit much larger, irrigation-drainage deal with the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District has been finalized and awaits congressional action. Considerable controversy surrounds the Westlands deal, and its long-term prospects, particularly in the Senate, remain uncertain.
A different kind of uncertainty has shadowed the separate deal for the three Northerly Districts. In a House of Representatives hearing last May, a top Interior Department adviser raised as many questions as he answered when he revealed the Northerly Districts deal was stuck.
“The Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior is currently involved in an investigation, pending which, the department is withholding a decision on the Northerly District agreement,” said John Bezdek, the counselor to the then-deputy-secretary of the Interior Department.
Last November, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., thickened the plot by saying without elaboration that “the FBI is involved” in the investigation. Neither Bezdek nor Grijalva clarified the focus at the time, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California said this week that she “cannot confirm or deny an investigation.” A spokesman for Grijalva said Wednesday that the congressman had not uncovered any additional details.
The only related probe that’s become public so far was revealed last month, when California State Controller Betty T. Yee issued a scathing assessment of the Panoche Water District. The state report cited “possible violations” of state law, while also noting “the district has taken substantial corrective actions.” It did not make reference to any federal inquiry.
“As far as any ongoing investigations, unfortunately we aren’t allowed to comment whether or not there are any, or their status,” John Bennett, board president of the Panoche Water District, said in a statement Monday.
Diedrich was more direct on behalf of the San Luis district Wednesday, saying that “as far as we know, we’re not being investigated.”
Pacheco, the third and smallest of the Northerly Districts, serves farmland southwest of Dos Palos and shares office space and a general manager with the Panoche district. While the Panoche district has hired a Sacramento-based firm to handle press calls, the Pacheco district has not and a district spokesperson could not be reached Wednesday.