Clashes on California water resume in DC with introduction of drainage bill

Agriculture drainage water to be treated enters the Panoche Drainage District’s Demonstration Selenium Treatment Plant via an irrigation ditch.
Agriculture drainage water to be treated enters the Panoche Drainage District’s Demonstration Selenium Treatment Plant via an irrigation ditch. Fresno Bee

U.S. lawmakers from California have more political turbulence ahead of them with the introduction Tuesday of a bill to settle a long-running San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage dispute.

The legislation by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, would implement a sweeping drainage settlement reached between the Obama administration and the Westlands Water District. It also reignites some of the same regional and partisan conflicts that have dogged past water bills.

“This legislation is necessary to approve and authorize the drainage settlement,” Valadao said, adding that it “has the potential to save taxpayers billions of dollars.”

The 19-page bill essentially matches the terms of a legal settlement announced last September. It relieves the federal government of the obligation to provide irrigation drainage to Westlands farms. The government’s failure to provide the drainage as part of the Central Valley Project network of reservoirs and canals led to tainted soil and serious environmental problems.

The bill includes concessions made by both the federal government and Westlands Water District to resolve the dispute.

Office of Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

In return, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. The nation’s largest water district will also receive a potentially advantageous new type of contract and have its own remaining $375 million debt to the government forgiven, among other changes.

Westlands would gain title to an array of canal facilities and buildings, under the bill, and would also assume responsibility for paying landowner claims currently made against the federal government.

“Ensuring taxpayer dollars go towards meaningful projects, such as increased water storage rather than fighting unnecessary litigation, is the responsible and most efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” Valadao said.

But in a sign of clashes to come, as well as a reminder of perennial congressional vexations, Valadao’s bill drew immediate fire from Democrats in the House of Representatives who represent portions of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and who have long fought Westlands.

“I oppose this bill, or any legislation, that would codify principles that benefit the nation’s largest water district at the expense of taxpayers and the environment,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton.

Three other House Democrats joined McNerney last September in criticizing the legal settlement, with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, calling the agreement a “bad deal.”

The legal settlement, and the legislation introduced Tuesday, in turn, are the unanticipated progeny of water decisions made long ago.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation began delivering water to Westlands in 1967, and up until the mid-1970s constructed some 70 miles of a planned 207-mile drain. Instead of reaching all the way to the Delta, it ended prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir.

Federal officials now peg the constantly escalating cost of completing that drainage system at upward of $3.5 billion.

The bill introduced Tuesday faces several hurdles. Though the Republican-controlled House could conceivably launch it relatively quickly, California water legislation often bogs down on Capitol Hill.

After an 18-year legal battle, for instance, negotiators reached a deal in September 2006 to restore salmon to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam. Legislation implementing the settlement was first introduced in December 2007.

In March 2009, the San Joaquin River legislation finally reached the White House as part of a larger package.

For the past several years, California water legislation intended to address the state’s drought has foundered over disagreements between House Republicans and California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Neither Feinstein nor Boxer has yet introduced similar irrigation-drainage legislation in the Senate. On Tuesday, four months after the Justice Department and Westlands announced their settlement, both senators indicated they were still reviewing the ensuing legislation.

“We . . . will be getting feedback from all the stakeholders,” Boxer’s spokesman Zachary Coile said.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10