California’s vast Delta — the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast of the Americas and the hub of the state’s sprawling water projects — shows every sign of ecological collapse. For the second year in a row, the number of Sacramento River salmon going out to sea is so small that the commercial fishing season will likely be canceled. Additional proof of the Delta’s ecological collapse shows up in crashing populations of fish that spend their whole lives in the Delta: last week the Center For Biological Diversity successfully forced California both to list one Delta species – the longfin smelt – as threatened, and to downgrade another species – the delta smelt – to endangered. Both species of imperiled smelt and the disappearing Sacramento salmon appear to be perishing in the vast pumps that suck water from the Delta: some of that water goes to cities and farms in the south via the State Water Project, while most of the rest goes to the Federal Central Valley Project. The largest straw sucking up the subsidized Federal CVP water flowing out of the piscacidal pumps belongs to the Westlands Water District. . . who’ve been stiffing taxpayers for almost half a billion dollars. Will California’s recent drought and chronically unsustainable water use finally stop the flow of Federally subsidized water to the wealthy deadbeats in the Westlands Water District?
Last month, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that some farmland in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys that together form California’s Central Valley won’t be getting any subsidized Federal water this year. Even though subsequent rains raised the prospect of some water deliveries, after two years of drought in 2007 and 2008, water levels in the reservoirs serving the Federal Central Valley Project are so low that deliveries – if any – will likely be insignificant. The west side of the San Joaquin Valley depends upon the San Luis Reservoir, which is one-third full: the lowest level in a quarter century. California’s prolonged drought forced the Bureau to announce the water supply will be cut for at least three weeks to over 200 Central Valley water districts: one UC Davis study anticipates prolonged cuts will cost 45,000 jobs and $2 billion in economic losses. In the San Joaquin Valley — California’s Appalachia — that’s a huge loss. Just as Appalachia has a few rich folk, the San Joaquin Valley does, too. Many of the Valley’s wealthiest farmers’ fortunes grew on the few hundred farm operations in the Westlands Water District. Despite their wealth (or perhaps to preserve it) these very wealthy farm operations have stiffed the rest of us for the $490 million their water district agreed to pay to build the Federal water project that brings subsidized Federal water to their farmland. For decades, we taxpayers have been subsidizing the water that flowed to Westlands through the Federal project that Westlands never paid for. Why did it take a drought for the Bureau of Reclamation to turn off the tap to a few hundred wealthy families who’ve been welshing on their bill to Uncle Sam for decades?
Westlands Water District is the largest user to lose subsidized Bureau of Reclamation water. Their annual contract for 1.15 million acre feet is enough water for two Los Angeles‘ annual use. To keep us city folk fed, Congress subsidizes irrigation projects with our tax dollars, so the cost farmers pay per "acre-foot" is a whole lot less than the cost we city folks pay. More on this in a second.
Some of the Westlands farmers are really good at harvesting subsidies. They get one subsidy in the form of low cost water. They get a second Federal farm subsidy for some crops grown with Federally subsidized water. They get a third Federal subsidy in the form of below market-rate power supplied to pump the Federally subsidized water that their Federally subsidized crops require.
A few years ago, the clever subsidy farmers of the Westlands Water District tried to grab a fourth subsidy. They wanted perpetual rights to the subsidized Federal water that flows to them over the Federal water project (the one on which they owe the $490 million). . . and they wanted to turn around and sell the subsidized irrigation water to cities. At city prices. Which means $20 to $40 billion for the few hundred Westlands families to share. Not surprisingly, perhaps, DiFi might have been in on the deal. Surprisingly, however, the deal fell through. . . for now.
Though I’m genuinely sorry for the loss of work and income to the agricultural laborers and all the people who worked on the Westlands Water District farmlands, it’s hard to find much sympathy for a few hundred wealthy deadbeat families who tried to use their own toxic mess as an excuse to siphon away billions of dollars of public wealth. If you or I don’t pay our utility bills, our water and power get turned off fast. Westlands has been past due (to the tune of $490 million, remember) for decades. Why did it take a drought for the Bureau of Reclamation to turn off the tap?