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Northern California lawmakers question huge Westlands Water District deal

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WASHINGTON - Northern California lawmakers are turning up the heat on the Westlands Water District, with coordinated calls for congressional hearings and tougher Obama administration scrutiny.

Citing recent enforcement action by the Securities and Exchange Commission, House Democrats from outside the San Joaquin Valley on Thursday initiated what one lawmaker termed “an investigation” into the district and its proposed irrigation drainage deal with the administration.

“The Westlands Water District plays by its own rules, and trusting them with an agreement of this magnitude should give every member of Congress serious pause,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.


Westlands officials countered that they’d be happy “to educate the public,” before following up with a direct shot at the skeptical members of Congress.

“Some of (them) have demonstrated by their comments, and their desire to read their names in the news, that they either have little understanding of these issues or are willing to deliberately distort the truth to further their agenda of eliminating agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley,” Johnny Amaral, the district’s deputy general manager for external affairs, said in a statement.

A career-long critic of Westlands, Huffman led three other California Democrats in calling Thursday for the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee to hold a hearing on the proposed Westlands drainage settlement. A hearing was already expected by supporters of the deal.

Simultaneously, Huffman and five different House Democrats on Thursday urged the Environmental Protection Agency to closely review the water quality consequences of the drainage deal.

And, in a three-page letter led by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, and joined by five other Democrats, skeptical lawmakers cautioned President Barack Obama to reconsider the Westlands settlement made public last September.

“The Westlands agreement signed by your administration fails to include key safeguards for the environment and for taxpayers, and falls far short of the principles laid out by the Interior Department earlier in your administration,” McNerney and the other Democrats wrote.

Underscoring their point, the Democrats made public a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service contrasting the administration’s stated goals with the final terms of the deal.

The Westland settlement, unveiled last year, has not yet been approved by either the House or the Senate. 

Years in the making, the settlement relieves the federal government of its obligation to provide drainage for Westlands’ farms. Federal officials now peg the overall cost of that drainage at upward of $3.5 billion.

Under the settlement, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire 100,000 acres and assume responsibility for providing the drainage that takes away tainted irrigation water, while the district’s remaining debt of about $375 million would be forgiven.

Huffman and the other Northern California Democrats were already critical of the proposed Westlands settlement, but they gained new ammunition last month with the SEC’s announcement that it had resolved a civil enforcement action against the district.

The district agreed to pay $125,000 to settle SEC charges that it misled investors about its financial health. The district’s general manager, Thomas W. Birmingham, also will pay $50,000 as part of the settlement.

The charges, which Westlands and Birmingham neither admitted nor denied, involved accounting maneuvers that allegedly masked revenue reductions caused by drought and corresponding cuts in water delivery.

“These revelations raise serious questions about Westlands’ ability to pay for drainage and the honesty of Westlands’ current leadership,” Huffman and the other Democrats wrote the House resources panel.

In a prior statement, Westlands cited the “remedial actions” it had taken and stated that it had “determined that entering into the settlement to fully resolve the matter was in the district’s best interest.”

This article appeared on the McClatchy website April 14. 

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