If you’re 26, these California water disputes have lasted longer than you’ve been alive

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

The now-distant December of 1988 was a big month for California water lawsuits that would last a generation and eventually land in Congress’ lap, where their ripples linger to this day.

Each of the two major lawsuits, introduced within weeks of each other 27 years ago, offers enduring lessons – in law, in politics and in the long, long time it takes to get things done in Washington.

“Nothing is easy around here,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Wednesday. “Not even a motherhood resolution is easy.”

This week, one of the lawsuits washed up on Capitol Hill with the introduction of a bill to implement a San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage settlement. The Justice Department and the Westlands Water District reached the settlement to end the lawsuit, but it’s up to Congress to put it into effect.

In California's fourth year of drought, officials are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfill their legal and contractual obligations to distribute water. Following a controversial decision to supplement water flows along the Trinity River ou

The 19-page bill introduced Tuesday by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, would relieve the federal government of its expensive legal obligation to provide irrigation drainage to Westlands farmers. In return, Westlands would be forgiven the $375 million debt it still owes for construction of the canal system and would retire at least 100,000 of the district’s 600,000 acres from production.

“Enactment of this legislation has the potential to save billions of dollars,” Valadao said.

The legal settlement reached last September between the federal government and Westlands gave Congress until Jan. 15, 2017, to complete the legislation. After that, if the bill hasn’t become law, either Westlands or the Justice Department could back out.

I didn’t say it was going to be easy, but I think the 2017 deadline is achievable.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno

A similar process is in place for the other December 1988 lawsuit, filed by environmentalists unhappy over the degradation of the San Joaquin River. There, too, an eventual legal settlement, reached in September 2006 with different Valley farmers, required congressional action.

The San Joaquin River settlement legislation, introduced in the House by the since-departed Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, called for restoring the river channel, water flows and salmon population below Friant Dam.

Lawmakers missed their first, politically unrealistic, legislative deadline of December 2006 – by a lot. The San Joaquin River restoration bill finally reached the White House for a signature in March 2009, as part of a 1,218-page package stuffed with other public lands and wilderness provisions.

“Even when you have a settlement that is supported by virtually every stakeholder, by every state and federal agency, it’s not a slam-dunk to get an authorization through Congress ,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Wednesday.

If Exhibit A for that proposition is the San Joaquin River bill, Exhibit B, Huffman suggested, could be the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.

Farmers, fishermen, tribes and others negotiated long and hard to reach agreement in 2010 over dam removals and water deliveries in southern Oregon and Northern California. Like the San Joaquin River and irrigation drainage issues, the negotiations followed lengthy litigation.

Congress, though, failed to pass the necessary Klamath Basin legislation by a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline, causing the agreement to expire.

“It’s just hard to move anything through Congress, let alone something big and complicated, ” Huffman said.

As an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Huffman was part of the legal team that pursued the San Joaquin River lawsuit filed Dec. 21, 1988. In the years after, more than 1,400 separate legal filings were lodged in federal court.

The lawsuit by water districts unhappy over the federal government’s failure to provide more drainage had been filed nearly two weeks earlier, on Dec. 9, 1988. More than 1,000 court filings later, a legal settlement was reached this past September.

“We want to get it solved,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said Wednesday, while acknowledging “there’s a long way to go, there has to be a lot of vetting on this, so people fully understand the ramifications.”

Nunes, like Costa, expects to be signing up as a co-sponsor of the irrigation drainage bill introduced Tuesday. They were on opposite sides of the San Joaquin River restoration bill, with Nunes the bill’s leading critic.

Huffman and other Northern California Democrats, meanwhile, are alarmed about the irrigation drainage settlement, with Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, saying he is “deeply concerned about how this legislation will impact the Delta, its ecosystem and regional economies, and water deliveries up and down the state.”

Opposition even from many Democrats is probably not enough to stop passage of Valadao’s bill through the Republican-controlled House. The key probably resides with the Senate.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer say they are still studying the irrigation drainage bill. Feinstein, though, has closer political and fundraising ties to Westlands and other San Joaquin Valley farm interests, and her eventual cooperation would surprise no one.

“I think we’ll have a lot of bipartisan support among members of Congress,” Costa said, noting the Obama administration backs the deal.

The Congressional Budget Office must assess the settlement bill’s anticipated cost to the government, which could prove tricky, and some tactical decisions must be made about timing and whether committee hearings will be held.

There’s also a final lesson to be learned from the San Joaquin River restoration fight, and that’s that finality is elusive. Six years after Congress passed the San Joaquin River legislation, those who opposed it are still trying to repeal it.

A long path to settlements

Drainage lawsuit

Dec. 9, 1988 – Lawsuit filed charging federal government had not provided proper drainage

Sept. 15, 2015 – Sides agree to a settlement

Jan. 13, 2016 – Bill to carry out settlement filed

Unknown – when bill will become law

San Joaquin River lawsuit

Dec. 21, 1988 – Environmentalists sue over degradation of San Joaquin River

Sept. 13, 2006 – Settlement reached

Dec. 6, 2006 – Bill to carry out settlement filed

March 30, 2009 – San Joaquin River settlement bill becomes law