Soaking Uncle Sam

Why Westlands Water District's New Contract is All Wet

September 14, 2005

Soaking Uncle Sam: Less Land, More Water

Much of the land in Westlands should never have been irrigated in the first place, for the area is plagued with highly saline soil and poor drainage. A 1990 Department of Interior report said:

"Inadequate drainage and accumulating salts have been persistent problems in parts of the [San Joaquin] valley for more than a century, making some cultivated land unusable as far back as the 1880s and 1890s. Widespread acreages of grain, first planted on the western side of the valley in the 1870s and 1880s were irrigated with water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. Poor natural drainage conditions, coupled with rising ground-water levels and increasing soil salinity, meant that land had to be removed from production and some farms ultimately abandoned." [19]

When Westlands became a CVP district in the 1960s the government was planning to construct a drainage system in the western San Joaquin Valley to make long-term farming viable. Part of this system became the San Luis Drain, a cement canal constructed during the 1970s that funneled wastewater away from thousands of acres of farmland in the area. But in 1982, scientists discovered record numbers of migratory birds emerging from their eggs with massive deformities at the Drain's terminus, Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County. Baby birds were found with grossly misshapen beaks, twisted legs, missing wings, and incompletely formed skulls. More than 1,000 waterfowl eventually died. [20]

Much of the soils in the western San Joaquin Valley are loaded with selenium, a usually benign trace element that can be deadly to wildlife and humans in high concentrations. The San Luis Drain transported the compound to Kesterson, where it concentrated in the shallow waters and aquatic vegetation, poisoning the birds and wildlife that lived there. To avoid further ecological destruction, officials closed the Drain in 1985. But they never figured out what to do about the drainage problem.

Looking back, Floyd Dominy, head of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, called the decision to add Westlands to the CVP "a terrible mistake:"

"We went ahead with the Westlands project before we solved the drainage problem. We thought we knew how to solve the drainage problem. We thought the Kesterson Reservoir could be flushed on out into the Delta. We didn't have it solidified. So I made a terrible mistake by going ahead with Westlands at the time we did." [28]

According to Bureau of Reclamation figures, 379,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley — including 298,000 acres in Westlands — need drainage. [3] In 2002, the Bush administration promised Westlands $107 million in exchange for permanently retiring 34,000 acres of impaired farmland. [12] The Bureau is currently evaluating various alternatives as to what to do about the remaining hundreds of thousand of acres. Although none of the proposed options involve retiring all of the problem land, many of the options involve substantial additional land retirement. [3]

In other words, Westlands will soon need less water than it is using today since it will have fewer acres of land to irrigate. But this fact isn't reflected in Westland's official "water needs assessment" used in the contract renewal process to document why the district would need 1.15-—plus million acre-feet of water for the next 25 years. [21] To the contrary, Westlands' "needs assessment" actually claims that it will be irrigating 50,000 more acres in 2025 than it was in 1999.

More troubling is that Westlands is poised to keep its full CVP water allotment, even if its acreage gets slashed almost in half. Part of the Bush Administration's deal to retire 34,000 acres was that the district would get to keep the water now flowing to these farms. Likewise, Westlands' new contract says basically nothing about the likely future land retirement or how this would affect water deliveries. The contract states only that "adequate drainage service is required to maintain agricultural production within certain areas" and the Bureau intends to "develop and implement effective solutions to drainage problems." [5] This omission seems to imply that future land retirement would not affect the amount of CVP water flowing to Westlands.

What if Westlands does end up with its same hefty water allotment but only a fraction of its land? The district will obviously have more water than it could use, putting it in a position to sell its surplus to thirsty Southern California cities. Rep. George Miller of California, the leading CVP watchdog in Congress, says the deliberate over-allocation of water in the contracts amounts to an "annuity" for farmers who plan to resell their water. [22]