California Westlands water settlement in limbo

The deal addresses toxic drainage but could fall apart without congressional action.


This year, the annual bill governing national defense policy almost settled a three-decades-old conflict in California over toxic water draining from farm fields.

Lawmakers finished resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions of the military bill, legislation that addresses troop numbers and overseas operations, on Wednesday. They considered — but ultimately dropped — a rider, the San Luis Unit Drainage Resolution Act, that would have confirmed a 2015 settlement transferring federal responsibility for dealing with contaminated water in California’s Westlands Water District to the district.

Under the settlement, Westlands, the largest supplier of agricultural water in the U.S., would take on preventing or treating the contaminated runoff, as well as legal liability for lands damaged by excess drain water. In exchange, the federal government would forgive $375 million in debt. But the agreement, which requires congressional approval, is now in limbo — another example of the often-convoluted nature of Western water policy.

California’s Dos Amigos Pumping Plant and the San Luis Canal are part of the state’s vast water delivery system. They bring water from northern California to drier parts of the state, including the Westlands Water District.

In parts of the San Joaquin Valley, irrigation water, trapped by a layer of impermeable clay, accumulates in soil instead of draining deeper into the ground. That can smother crop roots; excess dissolved salts in the water can also damage plants. To remove the water, in 1968 the federal government began building a drain emptying into Kesterson Reservoir, about 50 miles east of San Jose. Then, in the early 1980s, hundreds of ducks and other waterfowl died at Kesterson; many bird embryos showed severe abnormalities, including missing eyes and beaks. The culprit was selenium — a naturally occurring mineral that became concentrated to lethal levels through evaporation on fields, then washed into the reservoir with the farm runoff.

“We know exactly what improper storage, conveyance and disposal of these contaminated drainage waters does to the environment,” says Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “We saw it in Kesterson, and we don’t want to see it again.” Because the environmental stakes are so high, Oppenheim’s organization is wary of the settlement’s stipulation that the water district manage drainage cleanup. “We don’t think that Westlands is going to have fish and the environment top of mind when they implement their plans,” he says.

But Johnny Amaral, Westlands’ deputy general manager for external affairs, points out that it was a federal plan that caused the disaster at Kesterson. “The government has failed miserably,” he says. “And when it comes to managing the water resource, we’re experts at it.”

In fact, Westlands has already put a dent in the drainage problem. Nearly all of the irrigated land in the district is watered by efficient methods like sprinklers or drip irrigation, reducing runoff. Westlands has also purchased or otherwise permanently retired about 40,000 acres of farmland, and another 50,000 or so acres could be farmed in ways that don’t require irrigation. The settlement would continue that progress by requiring that Westlands dry up at least 10,000 additional acres. Amaral says the district may choose to retire even more; federal management would have required that nearly 200,000 acres be retired from irrigation.

Under the settlement, the Interior Department would oversee Westlands’ drainage management. If the district falls short, “they have the ultimate hammer,” Amaral says. “They can cut off our water supply.” But critics of the settlement say it should include more oversight and monitoring — and that cutting off all water deliveries to the district is such an extreme remedy that the federal government would be loath to do it under almost any circumstances.

The settlement would also alter Westlands’ contract for water deliveries from the Central Valley Project, one of California’s major water delivery systems. It would make the district’s contract — currently renewed every two years — permanent. It would also cut Westlands’ allocation by 25 percent.

But the Hoopa Valley Tribe, along with many environmental groups, sees the settlement as another chapter in a decades-long history of southern California water districts fighting for control of rivers in the north. They say Westlands is making a small sacrifice in return for secure, long-term access to water from the Trinity River, which winds through the Hoopa Reservation, and other rivers. “It is very apparent to me that there’s a major shift in wealth because of the value of this water,” says Mike Orcutt, the tribe’s fisheries director.

While the settlement was dropped from this week’s must-pass military legislation, Westlands is still hoping for congressional confirmation. And a deadline is looming: The agreement expires on Jan. 15, although that cutoff has been extended before. “It’s a problem that just needs to be resolved,” Amaral says. “Whether it’s the National Defense Authorization Act or any other vehicle moving through Congress, we think it’s the right thing and it’s the responsible thing to push this thing through and to try to get it done.”

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 

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