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Op-Ed: Advocates claim a secret pact has occurred with California water (Includes interview)

“This secret process is in violation of federal laws such as NEPA that require public environmental impact analysis and consideration of a range of reasonable alternatives before rather than after government action,” said Friends of the River’s Senior Counsel Robert Wright.

He and the environmental group claim that The Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior have been quietly setting up a negotiation of a proposed settlement of drainage and water issues with Westlands Water District in secret. As Wright explained to this reporter, “there are protocols and a process that must be followed before anything like this can be done.”

This past June 24, Friends of the River sent a letter to four high ranking officials; two in Sacramento with the Dept. of the Interior and one with the Dept. of Justice in Washington D.C. to call attention to this situation.
“We are informed (the letter states) and believe that the United States government has been negotiating the proposed settlement in secret– with a public water district– instead of identifying and evaluating the critical drainage, selenium, and other environmental issues in public NEPA and ESA processes. This process is in violation of these environmental laws that require public environmental impact analysis and consideration of a range of reasonable alternatives before rather than after government action.”

This reporter wanted to find out from Wright how Friends of The River learned of this secret deal with federal entities. “Whenever the public is refused access to information or documents, that (usually) is an indicator.” With California Governor Jerry Brown mandating the reduction of water use, the continued availability of water is getting micromanaged. And for big businesses that depend upon water that is an issue major stakeholders want to manipulate in their favor.

Wright pointed out, in a status report filed by the Federal agencies in Firebaugh Canal Water District et al v. United States of America in April 2015 the government stated that “negotiators for the United States and Westland’s have completed work on a draft proposed settlement agreement. This agreement included technical appendices; and that this draft proposed settlement agreement is now under review at the Department of Justice.” Wright emphasized based upon what Friends of the River discerned, the government has kept that draft settlement agreement secret so that its provisions are unknown to the public.

Friends of the River also pointed out that “the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have previously concluded that the best solution to the drainage problem would be to retire 300,000 to about 400,000 acres in the Western San Joaquin Valley from irrigation. Instead, the government’s negotiations with Westlands Water District appear headed toward producing the worst possible environmental outcome of continuing to irrigate lands producing enormous amounts of salt and selenium while allowing Westlands growers to establish in effect a permanent water supply for sale, as opposed to reducing exports as lands are and should be retired from irrigation.”

Wright mentioned that this type of irrigation is harmful and evidence of it can be found “as far back as ancient Egypt,” he said. Other water conservation organizations, like Restore The Delta and Tuolumne River Trust, have similar views. But often they are competing for the same funding to ensure their conservation work can continue.

“It is time to have the proposed settlement fully evaluated in the public environmental, endangered species and critical habitat evaluation processes required by NEPA and the ESA,” said Eric Wesselman, Executive Director of Friends of the River. “In light of the current extreme drought further endangering fish and water supply and requiring sacrifices by millions of Californians, crafting a dream deal for Westlands in secret while ignoring public NEPA and ESA processes is beyond incomprehensible.”

Wesselman believes that nature has a right to water just as much as humans do. Wesselman has said to this reporter before how important it is for a portion of the overall water supply be allowed to be left for nature. So much of the natural landscape and ecosystem depends upon the flow and dispersment of water as found in streams, rivers, estuaries and wet lands. To divert or disrupt that natural ebb and flow would only create more problems.

Yet according to the Thomas Birmingham of the Westlands Water District, the deal was not a secret. “it is correct that Westlands Water District and the Bureau of Reclamation have negotiated a potential settlement to resolve longstanding litigation concerning Reclamation’s obligation to provide drainage service to the District and damage to lands resulting from Reclamation’s failure to provide drainage service.” Birmingham serves as General Manager for the District and noted that “the potential settlement would relieve Reclamation from a mandatory injunction to provide drainage service, which Reclamation projects will save the government more than $3 billion.” And, he added, indemnify the government of any liability from claims of damage by landowners in Westlands.”

“The potential settlement is currently undergoing review by the Department of Justice. But the settlement is hardly “secret,” he said. “The fact that negotiations were ongoing was frequently reported to the United States District Court, Members of Congress, and non-governmental organization,” (makes it well known.) “Moreover, noted Birmingham, the terms of the potential settlement have been shared with Members of Congress and non-governmental organizations during briefings by Reclamation and Westlands.” Birmingham provided documentation to this reporter of those briefings. He also went on to say…”Indeed, if you Google ‘Westlands drainage settlement principles of agreement,’ the first site that will be suggested is a pdf of this document.” “If the proposed settlement were secret, said Birmingham, it would be the worst kept secret in history.”

Neither Wright nor Birmingham would comment any further. When this reporter asked Wright to clarify he continues to be silent. But when trying to piece together the larger picture, it is clear to this reporter the rift between the public and who exactly has rights to water becomes very complicated. Agricultural business interests are at risk, with the lack of water as the drought enters its fourth year. And as some like Wesselman will argue the glory days of California Agriculture are in the past, the dependency of water for the Golden State remains for other sectors of business is high.

For months the Los Angeles Times has been devoting significant coverage to the drought. In the past several weeks, The LA Times has detailed the ongoing struggle the State of California has had imposing fines, re-establishing rationing ordinances and enforcing more stringent measures against water diversion to help protect water resources.

How this all continues to play out will be very interesting. Meteorologists are hoping El Nino storm patterns will return in the Fall. But even with a storm or two, on the horizon, how much water will arrive via El Nino? Scientists are not able to say for certain. With a population at almost 40 million people rainfall will have to be significant to meet the demands of the nation’s most popular of destinations.

As Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, pointed out it is not so much a rift between groups or types of businesses over the other. When the dust settles so to speak, the task facing California and the entire region “is how we make it through together.”

To learn more about the California drought visit the California Drought page at The Los Angeles Times web site.

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