The West has a tricky, expensive water problem – and even solving it is controversial

Signs like this one dot the landscape around farms near Huron, Calif., on May 21, 2015. Dan Errotabere grows almonds, tomatoes and other crops in the Westlands Water district west of Fresno.
Signs like this one dot the landscape around farms near Huron, Calif., on May 21, 2015. Dan Errotabere grows almonds, tomatoes and other crops in the Westlands Water district west of Fresno.

A controversial California irrigation drainage deal designed to resolve one of the West’s trickiest, most expensive and longest-running water problems won approval from a key House of Representatives panel Thursday.

But the debate – and uproar over the proposal – is only beginning, and its long-term fate is uncertain.

On a mostly party-line 23-16 vote, the House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill to settle the irrigation dispute between the mammoth Westlands Water District and the federal government. The measure relieves Westlands of a big construction debt, and in turn shifts the burden for solving the toxic drainage problem from the government to the water district.

“Once authorized by law, the settlement agreement . . . will end the decades of frustration that began when the United States government decided in the 1980s not to uphold the promise to provide drainage service,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Opponents counter that Westlands is the only winner in the legislation.

“It doesn’t adequately protect the taxpayer,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, “and it certainly doesn’t protect the environment or the interests of other water users.”

Authored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, whose congressional district includes the 600,000-acre Westlands district, the bill unquestionably involves a lot of money and follows a legacy of poisoned birds and legal combat.

The district’s debt to be forgiven has been estimated at around $375 million, while the cost of providing drainage is pegged at more than $3 billion.

The Rhode Island-sized Westlands district, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, would also receive favorable new water contracts under the settlement, and in return would retire 100,000 acres.

We must look at the facts on the ground to understand the importance of the legislation.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno

The irrigation drainage was promised beginning with the 1960 legislation authorizing the Central Valley Project’s San Luis Unit, but only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain stopped 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.

The settlement covered by Valadao’s bill was originally reached between Westlands and the Obama administration, which faced a court order to provide drainage. The Trump administration essentially inherited the settlement, prompting one of several amendments from Huffman on Thursday.

Attorney David Bernhardt, who was formerly a registered lobbyist for Westlands, is reportedly a top candidate to serve as deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Citing Bernhardt, Huffman proposed that former Westlands lobbyists or officials who join the administration not be allowed to work on the drainage issue for five years.

“This is the same water district that has long had a revolving door with Republican administrations,” Huffman said, adding that “a bad deal should not be made worse by toxic conflicts of interest.”

The committee rejected Huffman’s amendment by 16-24.

While the 19-page bill is now poised for passage through the Republican-controlled House, its fate in the Senate remains uncertain.

Neither of California’s senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, has yet taken a public position on the irrigation drainage settlement, whose details were first revealed 19 months ago. Without at least one of the state’s senators picking up the bill, it’s very unlikely to reach the White House.

The House panel also approved legislation by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, designed to coordinate the state and federal permitting processes for surface water storage projects on federal lands.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10