The Interior Department on Friday awarded the nation’s largest farm water district a permanent entitlement to annual irrigation deliveries that amount to roughly twice as much water as the nearly 4 million residents of Los Angeles use in a year.
Gaining a permanent contract for so much cheap Central Valley Project water represents a major milestone for Westlands Water District, which supplies some of the state’s wealthiest growers and has long-standing ties to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
But the new pact, which would take effect June 1, provides no refuge for Westlands from California’s acrimonious water wars.
The district, which has rarely received its full contract amount in recent decades, will remain low in the federal project’s pecking order and will continue to be among the first cut in times of shortage.
The deal won’t end battles over the environmental impacts of massive water diversions from the source of Westlands’ supplies, Northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The contract won’t change the fact that about half of the district’s land is plagued by bad drainage and laced with naturally occurring selenium that can poison wildlife when it accumulates in wastewater from Westlands’ irrigated fields.
And it won’t head off more lawsuits from critics who scored legal points in challenges of Westlands similarly-sized, short-term contracts.
The district is one of more than 75 Central Valley Project customers — most of them farm irrigation districts — that are taking advantage of a 2016 law to convert water service contracts that require periodic renewal to agreements that permanently lock in delivery entitlements and other terms.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the federal project, also signed permanent contracts on Friday with a handful of municipal districts that it supplies.
“Completing these contracts is a big win-win for our contractors and the American public,” regional reclamation director Ernest Conant said in a statement. “The federal government will receive early payment of over $200 million, which Congress directed should be used for much-needed storage projects.”
The 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, known as the WIIN Act, opened the door for reclamation contractors across the West to get permanent contracts if they repaid what they still owe U.S. taxpayers for construction of a federal water project.
The Central Valley Project is the largest water supply-system in the country. Conceived in the 1930s and built over the next several decades by the federal government, the network of tall dams, big reservoirs and wide canals stretches 450 miles from the Redding region to Bakersfield.
The project’s supply of cheap, government subsidized water helped turn the arid scrublands of the San Joaquin Valley into a highly productive and profitable food factory.
That much of the water flows to the fields of large growers and agricultural corporations rather than the small family farms envisioned in the 1902 Reclamation Act has made the project the subject of periodic reform attempts and enduring criticism.
There is no project contractor as controversial as Westlands, which covers more than 1,000 thinly-populated square miles on the San Joaquin Valley’s sun-soaked west side. The district started taking federal irrigation deliveries in the 1960s.
Westlands has a history of filing lawsuits to block endangered species protections that have curbed delta deliveries. Bernhardt — who for years represented Westlands as a Washington lawyer and lobbyist before joining the Trump administration — argued one of those cases.
To foes, the district’s huge water contract, legacy of tainted field drainage and circumvention of federal reclamation law are emblematic of the shortcomings of federal irrigation policy.
When large landowners in Westlands broke up their holdings to meet acreage limits on the delivery of taxpayer-subsidized water, the cropland was often spread among extended family members and their trusts.
Westlands says it supplies 700 “family-owned multi-generational farms,” with an average size of 875 acres — which is under the 960-acre limit. But University of California researchers in 2011 found 350 farm networks “grouped by common ownership.”
Growers will no longer have to worry about such restrictions, which are dropped when contractors pay off their construction debt.
Last year Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham said the district owed the government $320.5 million. In response to recent questions from The Times, the reclamation bureau said that sum represented Westlands construction debt as of September 2016.
Westlands’ payments since then have whittled the remaining debt to an estimated $202 million, said Shane Hunt, acting public affairs officer for the bureau.
Fishing and environmental groups have for years contended that the federal government should cut the size of Westlands’ contract, which at 1.15 million acre feet, is the largest in the Central Valley Project network.
They argue that Westlands has already taken roughly 100,000 acres out of production because of drainage problems and water shortages, and may have to retire more cropland.
They further note that neither the district nor the federal government has adopted a program to fully deal with selenium-tainted wastewater from Westlands fields, which in the early 1980s poisoned waterfowl at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.
The groups won a favorable court ruling in 2016, when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the reclamation bureau should have considered reducing the contract quantity when it renewed a series of short-term Westlands contracts. That case is still pending and may be rendered moot by the new pact.
Reclamation officials have said they do not have to conduct a review of the environmental impacts of granting permanent contracts because the WINN Act directs the agency to issue them.
Not so, said attorney Stephan Volker, who represents tribal and salmon fishing groups who filed earlier challenges. “We will be in court again and I’m optimistic that we will overturn that unlawful approval,” he said.
“The Bureau of Reclamation has never conducted an adequate [environmental] review that would identify the host of devastating impacts on the delta and its fish and wildlife that results in taking 1.2 million acre feet annually out of that beleaguered system and giving it to corporate farmers to apply to poisoned lands,” Volker argued.
Birmingham said last year that even if the district took a third of its 600,000 acres out of production, growers who have expanded plantings of almond and pistachio trees would continue to need full deliveries.
He also dismissed suggestions that the permanent entitlement positions the district to go into the water sales business.
“To date Westlands hasn’t sold any water outside of its district. We don’t sell the water for a handsome profit,” he said.