U.S. government negotiating buyout of Central Valley farms

Landowner say lack of drainage poisoned their ground; it could cost taxpayers $500 million to fallow 200,000 acres

November 16, 2002

By Mike Taugher, reporter on the environment and energy

Contra Costa Times

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The federal government is nearing a deal with California farmers to buy tens of thousands of acres of farmland that are slowly dying of salt poisoning.

But concern is mounting in Congress, where a buyout that could amount to $100 million or more is seen by some lawmakers as a bad deal for taxpayers who subsidized the farms in the first place.

The negotiations are one part of an unprecedented effort to make fallow as much as one-third of the nation's largest irrigation district, which is suffering from a pair of seemingly intractable problems: not enough water for crops and an inability to drain particularly nasty irrigation waste water.

For decades, the farmers of the fiercely combative Westlands Water District have been trying to force the government to drain their land, possibly with a pipe to the Delta near Antioch. Fears about the amount of salt, selenium and other contaminants it would add to drinking water and the Bay and Delta thwarted them.

Now, the farmers are considering selling their land to the government in separate discussions that have reached a new level of seriousness in recent weeks and months.

A full buyout, which could cost $500 million, would apparently relieve the government of a court-ordered obligation to provide farmers with expensive drainage services.

But critics say it is the farmers who owe taxpayers. The irrigation districts of the Central Valley Project, including Westlands, have received breaks from their obligations to pay off the $3.2 billion system that waters their land.

A half-century after the project was built, Westlands and other water users have repaid just $400 million, or about one-third of the interest-free debt remaining after Congress covered $2 billion of the cost.

"What is it that they owe to the United States, and has that been figured in (to the purchase price) or has that been forgiven?" asked John Lawrence, an aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.

Lawrence, who along with other congressional staffers was briefed last week on the progress of negotiations by Bush administration officials, said he and others are concerned that Interior Department negotiators might not be representing taxpayers as strongly as they should.

"This is land that is not productive absent the provision of federally subsidized water," Lawrence said. "And the federal government does not have an obligation to provide that water to anybody after their contract expires at the end of a few years."

Officials at the Department of Interior had no comment.

Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham said the district's remaining debt, about $350 million, would be borne by farmers who remain in the district.

"This really is unprecedented," Birmingham said. "Historically, Westlands would never have approved this type of program. We wouldn't even consider it."

"We're talking about fallowing one-third of our district because over 40 percent of our water supply was reallocated to the environment," Birmingham added. "There's a fundamental question that needs to be asked, which is are we going to preserve agriculture in the state of California?"

While a full settlement with Westlands could run in the neighborhood of $500 million, the more immediate negotiations for 33,000 acres could approach $100 million.

One of the big questions today is where buyout money would come from.

Congress is already being asked for hundreds of millions of dollars a year to help resolve California's water problems. Without consensus among the state's representatives over how to solve water issues, Congress has been reluctant to fund those programs at anywhere near the level that officials have sought.

Still, Westlands representatives say their prices are justified.

The land, plagued as it is with subsurface clay and drainage problems, has been highly fertile. Last year, $1 billion worth of products were sold from Westlands' farms.

When the government built the Central Valley Project and began serving Westlands, it was also required to drain irrigation water, they say.

The courts have agreed. The government is under a court order to build a Delta drain or equivalent service, although so far federal officials have been unable to find an affordable or politically acceptable answer.

Drainage is often a problem on irrigated lands, but it is of particular concern in Westlands because an impermeable layer of clay beneath the surface of the district prevents irrigation water from filtering into deep aquifers. The result is brackish water on the subsurface clay that creeps up into crop root zones, eventually rendering fertile farmland worthless.

The situation is worsening for the Westlands farmers, where an estimated 200,000 acres have brackish water within 10 feet of the surface. The irrigation district runs roughly 60 miles between Mendota and Kettleman City, east of Interstate 5.

In recent years, Westlands farmers have been increasingly interested in selling their land to resolve the problem, a move that could ultimately remove from production one-third of the 600,000-acre district in what would be the largest land retirement in the nation's history, according to Westlands.

If the federal government buys, Westlands officials say farmers are entitled to the price they would get if the land were properly drained.

"Westlands is now doing what environmentalists have been suggesting for a long time they should do," said Westlands spokesman Tupper Hull.

This week, a trial was scheduled to begin to determine whether the federal government is liable for damage to Westlands' land. The trial was delayed until Wednesday in order to allow the negotiations to continue.

Meanwhile, broader negotiations are continuing over a wider array of issues. The larger settlement could result in the retirement of up to 200,000 acres of Westlands farmland.

"They've advanced to very formal negotiations" during the last two months, Hull said.

In addition to questions about where the money would come from are questions about the buyout's possible effect on water supplies.

Normally, a smaller district with fewer acres to irrigate would demand less water, meaning more water would be available elsewhere for farmers, cities and the environment.

But Westlands has been getting less than the full amount of its federal water contract. In recent years, in fact, it has been getting about half of its contract amount.

The district is insisting that in exchange for reducing the amount of water that is in its contract, it be guaranteed a greater percentage of that water. In other words, it would likely get more water than it gets now.

Some critics say those demands are unjustified.

"The taxpayers paid for 95 percent of the water for them to farm, and now they're trying to get the taxpayer to pay them not to farm," said Barry Nelson, a water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Westlands is farming the taxpayers far more than they're farming the land in the Central Valley."

TIMELINE

1915 -- Farmers begin irrigating in the San Joaquin Valley.

1952 -- Westlands Water District is formed by petitions of the landowners under the California Water District Law.

1960 -- Congress creates the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project.

1968 -- Construction begins on the San Luis Drain, a massive drainage system to the Delta. San Luis Canal is completed and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation delivers water to Westlands.

1975 -- Congress halts construction of San Luis Drain because of environmental concerns and budget constraints. The concrete trough reaches as far as Kesterson Reservoir near Los Banos and drainage water is placed there.

1983 -- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records numerous deaths and deformities among waterfowl in Kesterson believed to be the effects of toxic concentrations of selenium in the water.

1986 -- San Luis Drain and Kesterson Reservoir is closed to agricultural drainage water. Westlands has been without drainage service since.

1988 -- Westlands landowners file lawsuit demanding drainage service.

1991 -- Environmental and other regulations reduce Westlands water to an average of 50 percent of the contracted amount.

1996 -- The district facilitates low-interest loans for the lease/purchase of more efficient irrigation equipment and systems.

2001 -- (February) 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirms that U.S. is obligated to provide drainage to Westlands.

2001 -- (Fall) Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt approaches Westlands with land retirement proposal as an alternative to drainage service.

2002 -- Federal buyout negotiations intensify.

2002 -- (Last week) Bush administration briefs congressional staffers on talks to settle one phase of protracted lawsuit over Westlands' drainage problems.

2002 -- (This week) a trial to determine whether the federal government is liable for damage to Westlands land was delayed to allow negotiations to continue.

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