[env-trinity] Westlands and San Joaquin Restoration Fresno Bee March 21

Byron bwl3 at comcast.net
Mon Mar 24 12:28:37 PDT 2008


Plan to restore river at risk; Water district demand threatens renewal deal
for the San Joaquin

Fresno Bee - 3/21/08

By Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON -- The politically muscular Westlands Water District is
threatening to torpedo a San Joaquin River restoration deal unless the
district gets its way on a separate and highly controversial irrigation
drainage plan. 


The unexpected move means Westlands has raised its price for supporting
restoration of the river, long after negotiators thought the district was
already on board. The hardball tactic also further unsettles a deal that has
already endured considerable tumult. 


Earlier this month, the Madera Irrigation District first voted to withdraw
from the river settlement and then several days later agreed to stick with


"We've had enough challenges moving the [river] legislation as it is,"
Friant Water Users Authority general manager Ron Jacobsma said Friday.
"Having opposition doesn't help." 


On Wednesday, Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham advised key San
Joaquin Valley water officials of the district's new policy. Briefly put,
Westlands wants the same contract concessions in an irrigation drainage plan
that Friant farmers are supposed to get as part of the San Joaquin River


The demand for equal treatment appears designed to pressure environmental
groups, which support the river restoration deal but remain skeptical about
the irrigation drainage plan. 


"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," Birmingham said Friday. 


The Westlands board president, Los Banos farmer Jean Sagouspe, warned in a
letter to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that Westlands "would withhold
its agreement" from the river deal and "expect other" water districts to do
the same unless Westlands' irrigation drainage demands were met. 


"The linkage between the two is problematic, at least for us," Jacobsma


The Westlands maneuver, for the first time, explicitly connects two
ambitious but distinct water-related projects. 


The first is a proposal to restore water and salmon to the San Joaquin River
below Friant Dam. The Natural Resources Defense Council and east-side
farmers served by Friant irrigation water negotiated the settlement to end a
lawsuit filed in 1988. Congress has not yet approved the necessary


The second project addresses irrigation drainage problems afflicting the
Valley's west side. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is legally
responsible, because the government never built a promised drain. 


"These are two significant environmental problems in the San Joaquin Valley,
and I think they certainly are related," Birmingham said. 


Westlands has proposed that it assume responsibility for fixing the drainage
problem. In return, Westlands would pay off early $147 million for
construction of San Luis Reservoir and other facilities. That is
significantly less that the $270 million present value of what the water
district owes the U.S. government. 


Until now, the river restoration and irrigation drainage problems have moved
on separate tracks. 


"The Friant settlement is not the Westlands drainage issue; nor, I believe,
should it be," Feinstein said Friday. 


"Each will either stand on its own merit or fall on its own merit." 


A $500 million river restoration bill authorizing levee repairs and other
work passed the House Natural Resources Committee last fall. A companion
Senate measure could move by April. 


The irrigation drainage plan is still being drafted. The general outlines,
though, vex environmentalists. They worry about Westlands prepaying the $147
million to the federal government, and the district seeking exemption from
tight acreage limits. 


Current federal law limits farmers from receiving subsidized water rates on
more than 160 acres. 


Friant farmers would enjoy similar provisions for acreage limits and loan
prepayment under the San Joaquin River restoration deal that
environmentalists support, Westlands notes pointedly. 


"If [the provisions] are appropriate elements of a settlement of the Friant
litigation, they are appropriate elements of a settlement of the drainage
litigation," Sagouspe wrote. 


Technically, Westlands does not have a vote in the San Joaquin River deal.
Politically, a defection by the 600,000-acre Westlands district with its
coterie of Western political allies could prove problematic. 


Birmingham said Friday that he did not know whether Westlands' new position
"will be an impediment or not" to resolving the San Joaquin River deal. He
said Westlands simply wants the "same principles" applied to the Valley's
various water problems. 


Jacobsma said Friday that "we're sorting through" Westlands' new demand.
Environmental attorney Hal Candee could not be reached to comment Friday. 



Byron Leydecker

Friends of Trinity River, Chair

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810

415 519 4810 cell

415 383 9562 fax

bwl3 at comcast.net

bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org (secondary)




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