Feds debate who will pay Westlands settlement
The mid-February settlement would flow to 150 landowners within the Westlands Water District, the largest U.S. irrigation district. They sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for neglecting to provide a drain pipe for their subsidized irrigation water.
California’s congressional delegation issued a joint statement that the funds should come from a Justice Department litigation budget rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, fearing that the payment could jeopardize current and future state water projects.
State Sen. Cal Dooley believes the funds will not need to be drawn from BuRec resources, a spokesman said. Dooley’s congressional district includes the Westlands area.
A Westlands statement said that it would be bad form for the farmers or their board to propose a way for the federal government to meet its obligation.
The federal government and the Fresno County farmers agreed to the $140 million settlement late last year, and U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger recently approved the deal. Under the settlement, taxpayers owe $107 million, with Westlands paying the rest.
Owners of roughly 33,000 acres claimed salt, selenium and other chemicals in the soil and water accumulated in their fields, rendering the property worthless.
The land has no future in farming, said Westlands spokesman Tupper Hull. “But it would be great for convenience stores and other kinds of development.”
He said the district is considering turning some of the land over to Fresno County, which he said could include it with any long-term growth plan.
Proponents of the settlement have said it is the first step in retiring up to a third of the Westlands district, which spans 600,000 acres. That much area could form a solid block of land about 100 miles long and 10 miles wide.
The Westlands district will pay for its portion of the settlement from $100 million in funds previously borrowed to conduct a far-reaching land retirement program, said Hull. Farmers have been repaying that loan with assessments ranging between $10 and $20 per acre, he said.
Meantime, the BuRec released its initial water supply allocation for the 2003-2004 water year, with south-of-delta water contractors receiving a 60 percent CVP water supply. The bureau projects the same 60 percent allocation with either dry or wet hydrology through the water year.
The low allocation is a result of reduced pumping in the Delta due to the environmental constraints, the bureau said.
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