Congress whiffed, so Interior restarts Westlands drainage work

By Michael Doyle | 01/26/2018 01:03 PM EST

The Interior Department has resumed the long slog toward development of a big California irrigation drainage system, because the controversial alternative remains mired down in Congress.

The Interior Department has resumed the long slog toward development of a big California irrigation drainage system, because the controversial alternative remains mired down in Congress.

With a Jan. 15 deadline for Capitol Hill action having passed, officials have advised a federal judge they will return to planning drainage for the Westlands Water District. Interior’s renewed efforts to solve the decades-old problem will continue until lawmakers finish legislation.

"That bill has not received a floor vote in the House and the Senate has yet to take action on legislation to authorize the Westlands Settlement," the Justice Department noted in a Jan. 19 court filing. "Accordingly, Reclamation will resume work under a control schedule while efforts to secure enactment of authorizing legislation continue."


The "control schedule" sets out a timetable and some anticipated costs for developing the drainage system needed to shed the tainted irrigation water that troubles California’s San Joaquin Valley (Greenwire, Jan. 10).

"We’re moving forward," Ali Forsythe, program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said today, while adding that "we do believe the settlement would be preferable."

The problem defies easy solutions and will take many years and lots of money to fix. The revised schedule submitted Jan. 19 to U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill extends to 2026, with expenditures of up to $3.5 million this year and $12 million next year.

Federal officials have already "had an initial discussion with Westlands regarding a repayment contract" for the drainage work, Federico Barajas, Reclamation’s deputy director for the Mid-Pacific Region, advised O’Neill.

"Westlands will need to repay all other costs of constructing, operating and maintaining all drainage facilities that Reclamation determine are allocated [to the district]," Barajas stated in a declaration.

That would add up. According to the Congressional Budget Office, citing Reclamation’s estimates, the drainage "facilities will take more than a decade to complete under current law" and "will cost about $2.5 billion."

In what remains of fiscal 2018, the latest schedule anticipates work ranging from re-evaluating "system layout options" to the purchase of "land and rights."

Although Interior officials and San Joaquin Valley lawmakers still hope to pass legislation that changes how the Westlands drainage problem is addressed, they had little choice about resuming, at least for now, the federal steps spelled out Jan. 19.

O’Neill, based in Sacramento, had given Westlands and federal officials until Jan. 15 to complete the irrigation drainage deal through the passage of necessary legislation. He added that there would be no further extensions.

"The parties are warned that this case has been pending for more than a quarter century," O’Neill wrote last year. "The buck is being passed from Congress to Congress, and the court will not continue to enable this pattern of delay."

The underlying lawsuit at the heart of the drainage issue was filed in 1988.

The proposed deal would forgive a roughly $375 million debt owed by Westlands for its share of Central Valley Project construction. The CVP’s network of reservoirs, canals and pumping plants enabled the Rhode Island-sized Westlands district to become an agricultural powerhouse.

The deal struck during the Obama administration also would set terms on future water contracts and require Westlands to retire 100,000 of its 600,000 acres. In return, the federal government would be relieved of the obligation to construct expensive irrigation drainage facilities, needed to prevent buildup of tainted groundwater.

The House has not yet voted on legislation to approve the deal, H.R. 1769, which passed the House Natural Resources Committee last April. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) wanted the language included in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, but California’s Democratic senators, Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, opposed the move (Greenwire, Nov. 16, 2016).