Westlands Water Deal is all wet

Editor's Note: The San Francicsco Chronicle ran the following editorial on April 30, 2016

  When the public is railing about the unfairness of Big Bank bailouts and corporate welfare, why is the Obama administration pursuing a deal that gives away California water — a resource as precious as oil — to a San Joaquin Valley water agency?

  A proposed legal settlement would wipe off the federal books a long-standing lawsuit but also reward the Westlands Water District with what every community in the arid West would like — a permanent water contract.

  The proposed agreement and the changes in law required to implement it contained in HR4366 give away water that belongs to all Californians and do nothing to ensure the state’s land, wildlife and humans are protected from pollution.

  Here’s the story: The Department of the Interior has a duty to provide drainage for the district to dispose of selenium-polluted water. Under the settlement agreement, the federal government would transfer responsibility for building and managing the drain to Westlands. In exchange, it would forgive the $375 million still owed taxpayers for the district’s share of the cost of the Central Valley Project, the federal water project that delivers it water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

  Westlands, one of the most productive and profitable agricultural areas in the world, farms lands laced with selenium salts. Westlands farmers need additional water to flush the salts from the crops’ roots so the plants or trees don’t turn brown and die. Without flushing, the land eventually becomes too toxic to farm. Without a drain, the selenium-laden runoff contaminates groundwater and waterways.

  The proposed agreement, according to the Congressional Research Service, fails to require Westlands to say how it would protect water quality. It includes no consequences — such as stopping water deliveries — if the district fails to put in an acceptable drain.

  But here’s the capper: The agreement converts the district’s two-year contracts to a permanent contract for up to 890,000 acre-feet of subsidized water — a third more water than Los Angeles uses in a year. It would be cheaper to have Westlands fallow more land.

  The state should object to this plan. Californians should tell Congress and the Obama administration we won’t stand for more corporate welfare.