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A San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage settlement is reached, but questions remain

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WASHINGTON - A top Interior Department official  Tuesday will sign a San Joaquin Valley irrigation settlement with the Westlands Water District, signaling the end of a long-running legal battle, but marking the start of a hot new political fight.

After years of wrangling, negotiators agreed to a deal that absolves the federal government of the responsibility to provide irrigation drainage to farms in thte Westlands district. The government’s failure to provide the drainage as part of building the Central Valley Project led to tainted soil and serious environmental problems.

In return, according to lawmakers briefed on the deal Friday, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. The nation’s largest water district will also receive a potentially an advantageous new type of contract and have its own remaining debt to the government forgiven, among other changes.


“The settlement agreement means that there is finally a reasonable solution to a long festering problem that began when the U.S. government determined that it was not going to complete drainage service to the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.

Westlands officials will sign the agreement after the Interior Department, in advance of a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday, according to lawmakers briefed Friday.

“The Department of Interior, the Department of Justice and Westlands have been working diligently,” Westlands General Manager Thomas W. Birmingham said in an interview Friday, adding that he was “hopeful” that the settlement will be finalized.

But while Costa called the settlement agreement a “a reasonable compromise considering the significant financial obligation that now faces the U.S. taxpayer,” lawmakers from Northern California who represent portions of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta decried both the deal and what they call the secrecy surrounding it.

“It doesn’t look good,” Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., said in an interview Friday. “Westlands is getting another sweetheart deal.”

With rumors of an impending settlement swirling for many months, McNerney in late July led other Northern California Democrats in asking the Interior Department for more information. On Friday, Interior Department officials responded with an hour-long briefing for three House members. The congressmen could ask questions, but were not given copies of the settlement.

“It was totally unsatisfactory,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said in an interview. “The information they gave us was four years old.”

The third House member in the Friday briefing, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., added that he was “disappointed” that Interior Department officials “apparently want to shield this from public disclosure for as long as possible.”

The Interior Department could not be reached to comment Friday.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation began delivering water to Westlands in 1967, and up until the mid-1970s constructed some 70 miles of a planned 207-mile drain. Instead of reaching all the way to the Delta, it ended prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir. 

The cost of completing a drainage solution has now been pegged at upwards of $2.7 billion.

General terms of the settlement have been circulating for some time. These previously public draft proposals include Westlands assuming responsibility for drainage, exempting Westlands from acreage limitations and relieving the water district from its obligation to repay the rest of the capital costs for construction.

The settlement will need to be enacted through legislation approved by Congress, adding another wrinkle to what’s already been a complicated journey. Separately, the House and Senate are considering California water legislation responding to the Western drought, although the drainage settlement could end up being tacked on to some other bill.

This article originally appeared on the McClatchy website Sept. 11, 2015. 

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