After being locked for years in a legal battle with farmers in California’s Central Valley, the federal government has decided to buy its way out. Westlands Water District irrigates more land than any other district in the country. But the salty, selenium-laced ground has grown increasingly less productive, because the district lacks adequate drainage for irrigation water, a service promised to the farmers by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1960. The Bureau has explored a number of drainage options, including a 197-mile aqueduct to the San Francisco Bay Delta that proved politically and environmentally infeasible (HCN, 11/19/01: Will Salt Sink an Agricultural Empire?).

In February, a federal judge approved a settlement that frees the government from draining some of the land. Instead, the government will pay $107 million over three years to help buy out farmers and retire 33,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the district.

While most people agree that the land should be taken out of production, not everyone agrees on the settlement’s terms. “The $100 million in direct damage payments is just the tip of the iceberg that taxpayers will shower on these highly subsidized farmers,” says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., citing another $150 million in costs and subsidies hidden in the details.

Others believe that the settlement is a good deal, considering that the farmers claim to have lost $400 million. “The claims for damage were far higher than what we will pay out,” says the Bureau of Reclamation’s Kirk Rodgers.

This arrangement may set the tone for future land settlements in the district; Westlands plans to retire another 170,000 selenium-contaminated acres from farming.