[env-trinity] Sacramento Bee 11 21 2009

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Sat Nov 21 07:57:17 PST 2009

Westlands Irrigation District wields major clout in California water wars 

Mark Grossi 
Fresno Bee 

Published: Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 4A 

The most powerful voices in the state's recent $11 billion water talks might
have been two  <http://topics.sacbee.com/water+districts/> water districts -
one speaking for half the state's population and the other for just 600 San
Joaquin Valley farmers.

The negotiations led to legislation with the promise of epic change -
restoring dying fisheries, building dams and easing gridlock that has dogged
water system improvement for decades.

It made sense that
/> Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19
million people, would wield big political clout in those talks. But who are
those 600 farmers? 

They are customers in  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Westlands+Water+District/>
Westlands Water District, the country's largest federal irrigation
<http://topics.sacbee.com/District/> district. With crops worth $1 billion a
year, this one  <http://topics.sacbee.com/District/> district produces more
than some whole states.

The 600,000-acre Westlands - with a footprint twice the size of
<http://topics.sacbee.com/Los+Angeles/> Los Angeles - is no hayseed at any
bargaining table. For decades, politicos from
<http://topics.sacbee.com/Sacramento/> Sacramento to
<http://topics.sacbee.com/Washington/> Washington, D.C., have heard
regularly from Westlands. The  <http://topics.sacbee.com/District/>
district's name appears on dozens of lawsuits. Any time there's an important
statewide discussion of  <http://topics.sacbee.com/water+supply/> water
supply, Westlands is in the room.

"This  <http://topics.sacbee.com/District/> district is a very influential
player," said  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Assemblyman+Jared+Huffman/>
Assemblyman Jared Huffman,  <http://topics.sacbee.com/D-San+Rafael/> D-San

Westlands is protecting its farmers, who have been losing water to
environmental reform efforts since the 1990s and idling land because of soil
contamination since the 1980s. This farming giant is in a slow-motion
transition, struggling to turn the next page in a 57-year history.

The  <http://topics.sacbee.com/District/> district's past is filled with
powerful families - Giffen, Diener, Harris and Boswell - who carved success
with sweat, guile and groundwater in west Fresno and Kings counties.

When they tapped into  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Northern+California/>
Northern California river water on the federal
<http://topics.sacbee.com/Central+Valley+Project/> Central Valley Project in
the 1960s, they made enemies. Now those north-state enemies blame Westlands
for trashing the ecosystem and ruining the salmon fishing industry. They say
the  <http://topics.sacbee.com/District/> district takes too much water from
the  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Sacramento/> Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

They call Westlands a litigious maverick, a greedy agribusiness and an
abuser of federal subsidies. Some suggest Westlands should die off and
eliminate one of the many water consumers in
<http://topics.sacbee.com/California/> California.

"We should never have allowed farming out there," said
<http://topics.sacbee.com/Bill+Jennings/> Bill Jennings, chairman of the
<http://topics.sacbee.com/California+Sport+Fishing+Alliance/> California
Sport Fishing Alliance, based in  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Stockton/>
Stockton. "I think we can solve a lot of
<http://topics.sacbee.com/California/> California's water problems by buying
Westlands farmland and taking it out of production."

Which Westlands?

Farmer  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Dan+Errotabere/> Dan Errotabere, a
Westlands board member whose family has been on the west side since before
the Great Depression, chuckles when he hears critics call him a millionaire
with big political muscles.

"If that were true, why wouldn't we have more success at getting the water
we need?" he asked.

But critics say Westlands more often than not gets its way.

Westlands quickly goes to federal court when confronted with a roadblock,
said  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Tom+Stokely/> Tom Stokely, a member of the
nonprofit environmental group
<http://topics.sacbee.com/California+Water+Impact+Network/> California Water
Impact Network. And lately, it has been winning more often than not.

For instance, Westlands sued over a federal biological study that resulted
in a 25 percent loss of the  <http://topics.sacbee.com/District/> district's
federal supply this year, forcing further consideration.

"They're a big bully with lots of money to sue people," said Stokely, a
former Trinity County planner based in Northern
<http://topics.sacbee.com/California/> California.

Westlands' reputation for hiring the best lawyers and filing many lawsuits
comes partly from the 1980s when its well-known irrigation drainage problem

A clay layer beneath the soil prevents irrigation water from sinking far on
thousands of Westlands' acres. Minerals build up and eventually poison the

As a solution in the late 1970s and 1980s, federal officials piped drainage
water from Westlands to Kesterson Reservoir in western
<http://topics.sacbee.com/Merced+County/> Merced County. Scientists later
discovered the drainage was toxic after it killed or disfigured shorebirds
and other animals.

Federal officials stopped drainage to Kesterson in 1985. Then, legal actions
began as officials sorted out how to deal with the dirty water. The solution
has eluded authorities, the dirty water remains and drainage issues are
still in court. 

Benefits for the public

Only farmers have reaped the benefits from the investment of public money in
Westlands, one environmentalist contends.

Fresno lawyer  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Lloyd+Carter/> Lloyd Carter, a
deputy state attorney general and longtime Westlands critic, wrote in the
Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal this month that over
several decades taxpayers have invested more than $1 billion in everything
from canal construction to crop subsidies for this district.

But residents of Fresno and Kings counties have little to show for it, he

Westlands officials reply that farming has created thousands of jobs on the
west side and is the basis for many spinoff businesses, such as
<http://topics.sacbee.com/food+processing/> food processing.

Another prominent critic of Westlands is Rep.
<http://topics.sacbee.com/George+Miller/> George Miller, D-Martinez, who
co-wrote a 1992 irrigation reform law that provided more water for the
state's ecosystem. Westlands and other federal farm contractors lost 35
percent to 50 percent of their Northern California irrigation water in the

Miller has said Westlands represents a privileged group of farmers who
bought cheap land and got rich by using federally subsidized water to grow
subsidized cotton.

Rep.  <http://topics.sacbee.com/Jim+Costa/> Jim Costa, D-Fresno, disagrees,
saying much has changed in the last 20 years. Westlands farmers are largely
out of the cotton business and now pay full price for federal water. He said
Westlands' family farms are a critical part of Fresno County agriculture,
which leads the nation in  <http://topics.sacbee.com/farm+production/> farm

"It would be a tragedy and a blow to national security if we did not have
Westlands," Costa said.

On the farm

With the passage of state reform legislation, Westlands officials say there
is a clear path to building the canals and reservoirs that could bring more
water to west side farms. But it will take years, and there are no

Back on the farm, things look grim. The three-year drought, irrigation water
cutbacks to protect Delta fish and drainage problems have knocked out of
production 260,000 acres - more than 40 percent of Westlands land.

Growers aren't giving up. They've spent millions of dollars on
drip-irrigation systems. Water-intensive flood irrigation - filling furrows
with  <http://topics.sacbee.com/river+water/> river water - has largely been
abandoned, said farmer and board member Errotabere.

"Water is expensive, and we don't have enough of it," he said. "It has
always been that way around here." 


Byron Leydecker, JcT

Chair, Friends of Trinity River

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 land

415 519 4810 cell

 <mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net

 <mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org

 <http://fotr.org/> http://www.fotr.org 




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