(AP) – A California judge has rejected a federal contract granting permanent access to U.S. government-controlled water for the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier, saying it lacked details on costs and appropriate public notice.
Environmentalists had castigated the contract with the Westlands Water District as a friendly deal designed to benefit corporate farming interests rather than environmental needs and taxpayers. It was designed under the Trump administration under the direction of then Home Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for Westlands, a Fresno-based public entity that supplies water to private farmers.
“It was basically an effort to steal public resources and put them in private pockets,” said Stephan Volker, lawyer for the Winnemem Wintu tribe, the North Coast Rivers Alliance and several other groups.
Westlands is evaluating the court’s decision and can appeal if the case is dismissed, spokeswoman Shelley Cartwright said. The Water District rejects claims he received special treatment, with Cartwright saying he “acted transparently” and followed the steps required by law.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe on Wednesday refused to validate the contract between Westlands and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, a requirement for it to be legal. Tharpe has scheduled another hearing on December 2 to potentially dismiss the case, which would put Westlands back on the drawing board.
The water Westlands distributes to its agricultural customers comes from the Central Valley Project, a federally-run network of dams, tunnels and canals that deliver water from wetter northern California to the rich agricultural valley of San Joaquin and densely populated Southern California.
The case raises questions about how much water major districts that serve corporate interests should be entitled to at the expense of tribes and environmental interests that depend on certain water flows, said Patricia Schifferle of Pacific Advocates , a natural resources consulting company.
“The argument really is, are we going to allocate that much water to the Westlands Water District without conditions? ” she said.
The contract gives Westlands access to 1.15 million acre-feet of water for irrigation and other purposes, although it does not guarantee all that water during drier years like this that California is currently experiencing.
One foot-acre is equivalent to 325,851 gallons (approximately 1.23 million liters). The average household uses half to an acre-foot of water per year, according to the Water Education Foundation, which means the contract gave Westlands access to enough water to serve up to 2.3 million households. .
Westlands has long operated on an interim contract basis, renewing its water supply contract with the federal government every two years. But a law passed at the end of the Obama administration allows contractors to convert those contracts into permanent contracts, provided they agree to reimburse the federal government for the cost of water infrastructure.
The deal also allows Westlands to bypass acreage limits that have historically limited the amount of water available to contractors.
Permanent contracts must be validated by a state court, but Westlands has moved ahead anyway in early 2020. Tharpe is the second state judge to oppose them.
The trial judge said Westlands presented an incomplete contract that lacked key details, including how much the district would pay the government and when. Westlands also failed to provide proper notice to the public and left the contract open, potentially allowing for later changes not subject to public scrutiny or court approval, the judge said.
Westlands moved ahead anyway, finalizing the contract in early 2020.
The district again requested approval. But Tharpe said the district’s decision to go ahead with a more detailed contract hadn’t changed the fact that it initially sought approval for something incomplete. In his decision, he again refused to validate the contract.
Meanwhile, environmental groups and other opponents accuse Westlands of not paying back all of what it owes the federal government for the use of water infrastructure. The Home Office previously said Westlands owed the federal government $ 480 million. But Cartwright said the district had “paid off” its debt obligations with $ 210 million in three installments.
Opponents also claim that Westlands is failing to comply with environmental laws designed to protect populations of fish like chinook salmon.
Westlands says it is following the same process as other river basin districts to convert its contract and that it has not received any special treatment. “The suggestion that the permanent nature of Westlands’ proposed repayment contract makes it an ‘exceptionally good deal’ is simply not true,” the district wrote in a 2020 “fact sheet” on the contract.
Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Mary Lee Knecht declined to comment as the matter is still in dispute.