Central Valley

Lawmakers kick around new irrigation plan for Valley

WASHINGTON -- Farmers and federal officials are revising plans to fix the San Joaquin Valley's irrigation drainage problem.

The latest plan quietly floated on Capitol Hill this week gives the sprawling Westlands Water District an indefinite contract for irrigation water. In exchange, Westlands would pay off some of the money it owes for irrigation facilities and assume the federal government's responsibility for drainage on the Valley's west side.

"I think it's moving in a very positive direction," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Nonetheless, the latest plan still faces numerous legal, budgetary and political hurdles, and officials stress they must now boil it down to strict legislative language before they can fully evaluate it.

"It's different," cautioned Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, "and in California water, what's different must be examined." The new plan is the latest bid to solve the costly irrigation drainage puzzle, a legacy of the Central Valley Project that helped Valley farms bloom.

Irrigation water percolates through soil, picking up elements like selenium. With no outlet, accumulating irrigation water can poison farmland. An unfinished drain terminating in western Merced County's Kesterson Reservoir killed thousands of birds in the mid-1980s, and officials have been seeking a long-term solution ever since.

The Bush administration estimates it would cost upward of $2.6 billion to solve the problem with land retirements, evaporation ponds and other measures. This would swamp the entire annual budget of the Bureau of Reclamation, which built the Central Valley Project.

Administration officials believe a better alternative would be to hand the clean-up responsibility to Westlands, raising the big question of what Westlands gets in return.

An earlier plan would have forgiven entirely Westland's multimillion-dollar debt to the federal government. The present value of this debt is $270 million. With accumulating interest, the total owed will be some $418 million. Critics called forgiving the debt an unwarranted giveaway.

The new plan calls for Westlands to pay the federal government $170 million.

The earlier plan would have given Westlands 60-year irrigation contracts, more than twice as long as is typical. Farmers would have been exempt from the acreage-limitation rules designed to ensure only small farms get subsidized water.

The new plan provides indefinite-length irrigation contracts, also exempt from acreage-limitation rules.

"It's one step forward," Westlands farmer Jean Sagouspe said after a Capitol Hill briefing. "We're getting people to understand the concept." Sagouspe, Westlands Water District general manager Tom Birmingham and a host of other state, federal and local water officials convened under Feinstein's direction for the two-hour private briefing conducted in a Senate office building. Most left the session declining substantive comment about the proceedings.

Money is one lingering issue. If Westlands pays the federal government $170 million now instead of the higher amounts it would otherwise owe, the result is a loss to the U.S. Treasury. Congressional budget rules require such losses to be offset with other savings or revenue, which can be hard to find.

The environment is another looming issue. Westlands now proposes dedicating an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water for environmental purposes, in return for being shielded from additional water supply losses. There are questions about how this will work, and what environmental commitments the district might have under the new indefinite-length contracts.

"People are going to ask questions in writing," Feinstein said, "so that now, we will have a written record."