Politics & Government

Westlands’ irrigation drainage deal gets extended for one year so Congress can act

Signs like this one dotted the landscape around farms near Huron, in Fresno County on May 21, 2015.
Signs like this one dotted the landscape around farms near Huron, in Fresno County on May 21, 2015. rbenton@sacbee.com

Westlands Water District and Justice Department officials have given themselves, and Congress, another year to finish a controversial irrigation drainage plan.

In a new court filing, attorneys for the government and the Rhode Island-sized water district conceded that Congress had failed to meet the Jan. 15 deadline for legislation. They noted they had consequently revised the agreement, extending the deadline to Jan. 15, 2018; after which, if Congress hasn’t acted, either party can back out of the deal.

“The United States and Westlands continue to believe that implementation of the Westlands Settlement is in the public interest, as well as in the interests of Westlands and its landowners, and American taxpayers,” attorneys stated in the filing Monday with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

The settlement requires legislation to be implemented.

The proposal revolves around the federal government’s failure to build facilities for removing drainage water from irrigated San Joaquin Valley croplands. Only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain terminated prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir.

The settlement shoulders the 600,000-acre Westlands district with responsibility for its own drainage. Westlands also agreed to retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. Westlands would be forgiven its capital cost debt owed for the construction of Central Valley Project irrigation facilities, estimated at about $295 million. The government would no longer be responsible for constructing drainage, saving an estimated $3.8 billion.

The deal in question would include Westlands’ assuming responsibility for paying district farmers who seek compensation for farmland damaged by pent-up irrigation drainage. The farmers are currently suing the federal government for the money.

An irrigation drainage bill by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, was voted favorably out of the House Committee on Natural Resources last November, but it never reached the House floor.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10