Soaking Uncle Sam

Why Westlands Water District's New Contract is All Wet

September 14, 2005

Soaking Uncle Sam: Water Quantity

At first glance, the amount of water promised Westlands in the new contract is unchanged — 1.15 million acre-feet a year. But a footnote in the contract says: "This amount may increase before this Contract is executed due to contract assignments. The expected maximum increase in the Contract total is 38,490 acre-feet." [5] Compared to Westlands' current use, this may not seem like much. But it is more water than three-fourths of CVP districts got in 2002. [4]

The language used to give Westlands this extra water allotment seems crafted to circumvent restrictions on water transfers. Under the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), all proposed water transfers must undergo thorough review and meet ten different conditions before approval [11] A key condition is that the transfer will have "no significant adverse effect" on the government's ability to supply water for fish and wildlife. On the other hand, the CVPIA says nothing about "contract assignments." By using the term "assignment" — which is not further defined — rather than "transfer," Westlands appears to be trying to get its extra water under the table, without having to undergo CVPIA review.

This isn't the only example of how Westlands is subverting required environmental reviews of its contract. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Bureau of Reclamation must assess the potential environmental impacts of the proposed CVP contracts and consider alternatives to reduce harm. The Bureau has issued a series of draft Environmental Impact Statements ostensibly fulfilling its statutory obligations. Yet in a major — and illegal — oversight, the studies did not examine the impacts of delivering full contract amounts of water. [12]

In a January 25, 2005 letter to the Bureau, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the Bureau's environmental analysis "inadequate" because it is based on current deliveries of water, equal to only 50 to 60 percent of the amounts called for in the contracts. [13] In Westlands' case, this is the difference between about 750,000 acre-feet per year and 1.15 million acre-feet per year. The EPA also said the Bureau's studies failed to consider the impact of increased water deliveries on water quality — a glaring omission, given that hundreds of miles of rivers and tens of thousands of acres of wetlands and estuaries in the Central Valley are impaired by agricultural pollution. [14]

Disingenuously, the Bureau insists there's no change in the amount of water promised — that it is only continuing, as it has for decades, to overallocate CVP water in the contracts with no intent to actually deliver that much water. But the agency's spin is at odds with its actions. The Bureau has already made its first moves to find more water for CVP contractors.

In July 2003, the agency met with the California Department of Water Resources, Westlands water district, and several other major agricultural and urban water interests in the state. The meetings took place in Napa behind closed doors, without any representation from fish and wildlife officials, environmental advocates or other key stakeholders — a move that sparked widespread criticism and state legislative hearings. [15,16]

Nevertheless, the parties came up with a plan that will dramatically reshape California's water infrastructure. It calls for connecting the CVP to the State Water Project (a similar but much smaller irrigation system) and increasing state pumping from the fragile Bay-Delta ecosystem by 35 percent. The so-called Napa Agreement will eventually yield the CVP an estimated 95,000 more acre-feet of water each year. [17] Who would be the main recipient of the additional CVP water? Westlands.