Politics & Government

California Democrats battle over water subsidies for farmers

WASHINGTON — California congressional Democrats are engaged in another of their periodic intramural fights over the state's water, this time involving the giant Westlands Water District.

Illustrating once more that regional loyalty trumps party labels when it comes to water, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on Friday pledged "the fight of a lifetime" if some of his Democratic colleagues continued to criticize a proposed Westlands water deal.

In particular, Costa targeted Rep. George Miller, D-Concord. For years, Miller has criticized subsidized water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farms.

"If he wants to pick a fight with an entire Valley population whose economy hinges on a fair share of water, we'll give him one," Costa declared.

Miller, in turn, is raising pointed questions about a Westlands proposal for a water swap with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Joined by three other California Democrats, Miller last month wondered whether Westlands' proposed water exchange is inconsistent with the district's earlier dire warnings of a water shortage.

"Following Westlands' claims of significant hardship, many stakeholders and policymakers in California and Washington spent considerable time and energy this spring identifying additional water supplies for Westlands," Miller noted in a Sept. 15 letter.

Reps. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, Mike Thompson, D-Napa, and Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, joined Miller's letter. It's a potent lineup. Miller and Thompson are particularly close allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Napolitano chairs the House water and power subcommittee.

It's Miller, though, whose reputation resonates most among Costa's farm constituents. They still associate the Bay Area liberal with his co-authorship of the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which diverted more water from farms to environmental protection.

This means publicly sparring with Miller could be politically advantageous for Costa, whose Republican opponent, Andy Vidak, argues that Valley Democrats "were not willing to stand up to their own party" on defending the region's water interests.

Miller, in turn, answers to urban Bay Area constituents who are skeptical of irrigation subsidies and what he termed Westlands' "political advocacy, press releases and court filings."

Though it builds on past conflicts, the latest water fight is rooted in this year's water allocations. The Interior Department initially announced Westlands would only get 5 percent of its contracted water supply. Following intense political pressure and other developments, that has since increased to 45 percent.

Westlands' farmers say they want to send the Metropolitan Water District about 80,000 acre-feet of water currently stored in San Luis Reservoir. In turn, the farmers will get access to a comparable amount of Southern California-owned water next year. Farmers have practiced such "rescheduling" of water for a number of years.

"It is often a necessity for obtaining financing from agricultural lenders," Los Banos-area farmer and Westlands board president Jean P. Sagouspe advised Miller. "One of the first questions a farmer on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley will be asked by a banker is, 'What is your water supply?'"