Drainage Deal Imminent?

A tentative agreement is near in secret talks between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,the U.S. Justice Department and the Westlands Water District to settle three long-simmering drainage lawsuits, according to Interior Department sources. The settlement could be a bonanza for Westlands, which has been searching for half a century for a solution on how to safely dispose of farm drainwater containing salts, heavy metals and the trace element selenium. Westlands drainage triggered deformities in birds at evaporation ponds at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County more than 30 years ago. According to one source, Westlands will only have to retire a minimum amount of selenium-tainted soils even though a safe drainage solution has not been achieved. A current Reclamation plan to reduce or eliminate toxic drainwater will cost an estimated $2.7 billion for Westlands' 600 growers. Geologists say more than 300,000 acres of land in Westlands and adjacent water districts (state and federal) have elevated levels of selenium, a trace element highly toxic to birds and fish. Environmentalists have called for a cessation of farming on these tainted soils. In addition, the federal government will forgive the more than $400 million Westlands still owes in construction costs of the project built in the 1960s to bring Northern California river water to the parched western San Joaquin Valley. This huge commitment of public funds will have to be picked up by American taxpayers. It is unknown if Congress will have to vote on the debt forgiveness. The talks, still ongoing, have been conducted in near total secrecy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey and California wildlife and water agencies were excluded fromthe talks. Similar agreements are being negotiated with several smaller federal water districts in the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project. Westlands, at over 610,000 acres, is the largest water district in the San Luis Unit and, indeed, the largest federal water district in the nation. Apparently also excluded from the secret talks were staffers for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has long taken an interest in solving Westlands' drainage problems. An unnamed Interior official said the agreement with the San Luis Unit water districts may be shown to environmental groups after a deal has been reached. It is unclear if the State Water Resources Control Board can veto parts of the agreement. Still unresolved is the drainage problem facing federal water districts north of Westlands in the Delta-Mendota Service Unit. Those districts funnel their selenium-laced drainwater to the San Joaquin River under a waiver from the state. Unknown is what role lawyer/lobbyist Norman Brownstein has played. Brownstein is known as the nation's "101st Senator" who is being paid $20,000 a month by Westlands for helping in the secret talks in Washington, D.C. (Type the name Brownstein in my website search engine and see stories I have written about Brownstein in the past.) The secret negotiations will continue next week and an Interior official said some "big ticket" issues still remain unresolved but that the Obama Administration excepts a final agreement in the next few weeks. Some federal officials areworried about the impact such a controversial agreement would have on California's $7.5 billion water bond which will be on the November ballot in California.