Central Valley

San Joaquin River project faces opposition

WASHINGTON -- The politically muscular Westlands Water District is threatening to torpedo a San Joaquin River restoration deal unless the district gets its way on a separate and highly controversial irrigation drainage plan.

The unexpected move means Westlands has raised its price for supporting restoration of the river, long after negotiators thought the district was already on board. The hardball tactic also further unsettles a deal that has already endured considerable tumult.

"We've had enough challenges moving the (river) legislation as it is," Friant Water Users Authority general manager Ron Jacobsma said Friday. "Having opposition doesn't help." On Wednesday, Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham advised key San Joaquin Valley water officials of the district's new policy. Westlands wants the same contract concessions in an irrigation drainage plan that Friant farmers are supposed to get as part of the San Joaquin River restoration.

The demand for equal treatment appears designed to pressure environmental groups, which support the river restoration deal but remain skeptical about the irrigation drainage plan. "What's good for the goose is good for the gander," Birmingham said Friday.

The Westlands board president, Los Banos farmer Jean Sagouspe, warned in a letter to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that Westlands "would withhold its agreement" from the river deal and "expect other" water districts to do the same unless Westlands' irrigation drainage demands were met.

"The linkage between the two is problematic, at least for us," Jacobsma said.

The Westlands maneuver, for the first time, explicitly connects two ambitious but distinct water-related projects.

The first is a proposal to restore water and salmon to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam. The Natural Resources Defense Council and east-side farmers served by Friant irrigation water negotiated the settlement to end a lawsuit filed in 1988. Congress has not yet approved the legislation.

The second project addresses irrigation drainage problems afflicting the Valley's west side. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is legally responsible, because the government never built a promised drain.