California farmers hope Congress and Trump team can deliver irrigation drain deal

Work goes on next to a cotton field in the Westlands Water District, near Five Points, in October 2009.
Work goes on next to a cotton field in the Westlands Water District, near Five Points, in October 2009. Fresno Bee

The political terrain appears favorable for a mega-million-dollar irrigation drainage deal, with Congress still fully in Republican hands and California’s sprawling Westlands Water District with influential allies.

But there are complications. One is a legal cloud over a neighboring water district. The other comes with the state’s two Democratic senators, who remain uncommitted.

Legislation putting the drainage deal into effect could be introduced at any time.

“I think I have the support of leadership,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said in an interview.

But with that legislation will come a Capitol Hill fight.

“It’s likely they have the votes to pass it in the House,” environmentalist Patricia Schifferle, of the firm Pacific Advocates, said Monday, “but this is a cleanup they should be paying for, not you or I.”

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, on Monday added that the deal is “still nothing more than a gift to the Westlands Water District.”

Valadao represents Westlands, the Rhode Island-sized, 600,000-acre water district that’s the largest of its kind in the United States. A member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Valadao previously authored Westlands-related irrigation drainage legislation approved by a House of Representatives panel last November. He said his new bill will be “pretty much the same” as last year’s.

The legislation would relieve Westlands of its roughly $375 million debt to the federal government, while the government would be freed of its obligation to build an expensive drainage system to haul away tainted irrigation water.

“We believe it’s a good deal for both sides,” Johnny Amaral, Westlands’ deputy general manager, said Monday.

But the magnitude of the irrigation drainage plan and Westlands’ own political clout ensure controversy, potentially aggravated by issues outside of Westlands’ control involving up to three smaller districts that serve 102,000 acres in western Fresno and Merced counties.

It is my hope that Congress, the Trump administration and the local water districts work together to reach a comprehensive resolution to the drainage issue in the San Luis Unit.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General and the FBI have been looking into unspecified issues with the Panoche, San Luis and/or the Pacheco water districts, officials revealed ambiguously in public hearings last year.

Last month, in a move that may or may not have been related, California State Controller Betty T. Yee assailed “numerous deficiencies” in the Panoche district’s accounting and administrative controls.

Panoche’s problems included “several instances of possible violations” of state law, including personal loans to district employees and use of district credit cards for personal expenses, Yee reported. Yee also noted the district has “taken substantial corrective actions.” The report did not criticize the San Luis or Pacheco districts.

The Panoche problems have stirred speculation in San Joaquin Valley political circles and slowed the federal government’s final sign-off on a deal similar to that the Obama administration achieved with Westlands. While the Westlands irrigation drainage deal can proceed independently, Panoche’s documented problems may provide ammunition to Westlands’ frequent critics.

“I know there are people that will want to connect them,” Valadao acknowledged.

The office of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who supports the irrigation drainage settlements, has unsuccessfully sought details of the Office of Inspector General’s and FBI’s involvement with any of the northerly water districts. Lauren Horwood, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California, said Monday that she “cannot confirm or deny an investigation.”

John Bennett, board president of the Panoche district, said Monday that “as far as any ongoing investigations, unfortunately we aren’t allowed to comment whether or not there are any, or their status,” while also adding that the district “strongly supports” an irrigation settlement.

“The outcome of the state controller’s audit does not remove the obligation that the federal government has to provide drainage service to the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project,” Costa stressed Monday. “Since 1964, the federal government has failed to meet its obligation to the individuals and communities served by (the) water districts.”

The drainage was promised beginning with the legislation authorizing the Central Valley Project’s San Luis Unit, but only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain terminated prematurely, for a variety of reasons, at Kesterson Reservoir in Merced County.

Without drainage, otherwise fertile soil becomes poisoned by a buildup of salty water. The accumulation of selenium-tainted groundwater at Kesterson killed and deformed thousands of birds in the mid-1980s, and the catastrophe spawned considerable litigation.

In 2012, for instance, Westlands lobbyist David Bernhardt was one of the named lawyers who signed on to a $1 billion lawsuit filed against the federal government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The suit sought damages for the Bureau of Reclamation’s failure to build an irrigation drain serving the Westlands-area farmers.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2013, after which Bernhardt and other Westlands attorneys filed an appeal that is now on hold. Bernhardt, who dropped Westlands as a lobbying client late last year, has since been identified in news accounts and private conversations as a top contender for the number two position at the Interior Department.

Bernhardt was also one of the presumed targets of a proposed House amendment last year that would have blocked any federal official who had worked or lobbied for Westlands in the past 10 years from overseeing implementation of the big irrigation drainage deal. The amendment, by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Santa Rosa, failed by voice vote.

As part of the deal that would be implemented by Valadao’s legislation, Westlands would assume responsibility for managing the irrigation drainage. The district would receive favorable new water contracts, and retire 100,000 of its 600,000 acres.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10