FRESNO, Calif. – The federal government is considering giving Central California farmers some massive water infrastructure to settle a lawsuit over drainage problems that killed birds and left farmland too salty for crops, according to a draft proposal obtained by The Associated Press.
Shifting the cleanup cost to the private sector would save the federal government about $2.2 billion, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said Wednesday.
The complex deal could transfer the government's stake in local pumps and drain pipes to some of the country's biggest farming operations, according to a bureau letter detailing the legislative strategy for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
In exchange, farmers in the sprawling Westlands Water District and other nearby irrigators would retire a total of at least 200,000 acres of tainted farmland and bear the burden of cleaning up toxic runoff and thousands of acres of polluted soil.
Westlands representatives and environmentalists alike blasted the proposal. One environmental group said the government's latest plan would give away too many public facilities and wouldn't take enough cropland out of production.
"You can't irrigate this land without creating toxic pollution, bottom line," said Tom Stokely, a water policy analyst with the nonprofit California Water Impact Network. "Taxpayers shouldn't give up that kind of public investment, especially because there is no insurance that the plan will actually work."
Westlands is the nation's largest irrigation district and includes giants of agribusiness, such as Harris Farms, one of California's biggest farming operations, and Tanimura & Antle, the nation's top lettuce grower. Despite this year's plentiful rains, the agricultural basin has been hit hard by years of drought, as were workers in the region, where most of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown.
"There is nothing in the proposal that would help them with their drainage problem or to improve water reliability," said Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf. "We will probably be in court about this."
Westlands farmers and those who belong to nearby water districts have been banned from disposing of agricultural runoff in that area since the 1980s, when millions of migratory birds were born deformed after nesting at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, where the government initially routed the poisonous drainage.
Irrigation runoff in the area carries concentrated levels of selenium, a naturally occurring trace element that washes down from the volcanic mountain range flanking the valley's western edge. It became clear to federal officials that selenium was toxic after agricultural water was pumped into Kesterson, a popular stopover on the Pacific flyway that is part of the 26,609-acre San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, about 80 miles northwest of Fresno.
Thousands of birds died and were born without limbs after nesting in ponds of contaminated irrigation water.
After the environmental disaster, the government scrapped plans to build a huge drain to carry the runoff out to sea.
Irrigators sued in the mid 1990s, claiming federal officials reneged on their obligation to help them dispose of the tainted water.
Officials have proposed numerous solutions as the case has traveled through the courts. Decades later, the Bureau of Reclamation — which runs a massive irrigation complex that makes farming possible in the arid Central Valley — remains under a federal court order to dispose of the tainted water.
In 2007, the bureau announced a different $2.6 billion cleanup plan, but the Interior Department now says that it is too expensive to put into place.
As part of the new legislative proposal, farmers could get a break on paying back up to $470 million, which is their share of what it cost the federal government to build the water delivery system.
Feinstein said in a statement Wednesday her office was studying the plan drafted by the bureau's commissioner, Michael Connor, and would keep talking with both sides.
"It is clear that there is substantial difference between the Bureau's proposal and Westland's," Feinstein said.