Central Valley

Valley growers owe $497m for water projects, audit shows

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley farmers still owe the federal government almost $500 million for dams and canals built in the 1960s, according to a new audit that will help frame the next round of decisions about California water.

Farmers in the giant Westlands Water District and three other smaller irrigation districts south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta owe $497 million, the Government Accountability Office found. The money must be paid by 2030.

It's no surprise that the farmers owe money. They've been gradually paying it back as part of their long-term water contracts with the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The dollar amount, though, draws attention on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are considering expensive proposals such as restoring the San Joaquin River and cleaning up irrigation drainage. The proposals address problems spawned by the construction of dams and canals.

On the Valley's west side, a lack of natural drainage allowed irrigation water to accumulate, creating concentrations of dangerous elements leached from soil.

"Taxpayers paid for these water projects decades ago, taxpayers paid for the cleanup of some of the projects' worst environmental consequences over the years, and now the taxpayers are still waiting to be repaid," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.

Miller is the former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a longtime critic of Central Valley irrigation contracts. He helped request the GAO study, the latest in a long line of related audits.

In 1992, Miller used earlier GAO audits in his campaign to direct more Central Valley water to environmental protection. Miller sought the latest audit to shape the debate over irrigation drainage problems on the Valley's west side.

"Drainage is needed ... because a layer of clay prevents natural drainage, trapping salt and water in the root zones of crops and reducing the region's agricultural productivity," the GAO report issued Thursday stated.

The Bureau of Reclamation estimates one drainage option would cost the government $2.7 billion, for a combination of land retirements, evaporation ponds and soil treatments. A second option would transfer responsibility to the water districts. They would fund the drainage solutions in exchange for having their construction debt forgiven.

Water district officials and state and federal representatives have been meeting to discuss irrigation drainage options, but no solution appears to be imminent. Westlands representatives could not be reached to comment Thursday.

All told, the new audit notes, the federal government spent about $3.4 billion on the Redding-to-Bakersfield system of dams and canals known as the Central Valley Project. The CVP's San Luis Unit serves the Westlands, Pacheco, Panoche and San Luis water districts, which stretch as far north as Merced County.

A separate proposal has been made to restore water flows and salmon population to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam. The dam, which is not part of the San Luis Unit, is blamed for drying up the once-teeming river.

Though the irrigation drainage problems primarily affect the Valley's west side and the river restoration primarily affects the east side, taken together they illustrate the scope of the water problems facing the region.

On Thursday, reflecting the ongoing river struggle, Friant Water Users Authority Chairman Kole Upton said he would not run for re-election. Upton once praised the river restoration deal reached with environmental groups, but he now believes it could harm farmers by taking away too much irrigation water.

"This 'Neville Chamberlain' strategy of capitulation and surrender will doom the Friant service area to 20 years of hardship and involuntary land retirement," Upton wrote Thursday in a message to other water officials.

Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and other Friant-area water district directors contend the river settlement is the best long-term solution, offering certainty for both fish and farmers.