Froude Reynolds with more on the Westlands scam

The RBC welcomes guest poster Froude Reynolds, from whom we anticipate occasional posts like the following. Reynolds carried pipe in tomato fields, walked along canals, and studied water in California universities in preparation for current employment that makes a pseudonym a reasonable precaution.

For nearly eight years now, the Bush administration has cost the environment. It cost us eight pivotal years of addressing global warming, drugs in our drinking water, controlling our automotive emissions, west coast salmon runs and much more. But in these last months of the Bush administration, delay may finally be on the side of the environment. If delay means that the Bush administration can’t close deals with its cronies, now is the time for thorough new studies and lengthy public comment periods.

The Bureau of Reclamation, for example, is still trying to make sure a few hundred corporations in California’s Westlands Water District will be fantastically wealthy for three more generations. Westlands would get a couple hundred million dollars of debt forgiveness now, which is a pittance compared to getting control over about a million acre-feet of water for the next sixty years. In exchange for that, Westlands will make an empty promise to build a drain for the selenium tainted waters that run off its fields and caused a famous ecological disaster in the mid-80s. It is hard to imagine that drain is physically possible to build, much less permit, but even if it is they can’t build that drain for a reasonable price. Reclamation’s EIR estimated its cost at $2.7B, which is about twice what it would cost to buy all the land in Westlands and retire it (by rough estimate).

This impossible drain is an excuse to give Westlands water to sell to Los Angeles (instead of trying to grow crops with it) for hundreds of millions of dollars over decades, but Westlands is getting antsy about closing the deal. They’re now playing hardball with an entirely separate river restoration project. If Westlands doesn’t get their debt forgiveness and their water, they plan to pull out of the San Joaquin River restoration settlement.

The Westlands board president, Los Banos farmer Jean Sagouspe, warned in a letter to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that Westlands “would withhold its agreement” from the river deal and “expect other” water districts to do the same unless Westlands’ irrigation drainage demands were met.

Westlands is willing to bully other local districts and threaten an unrelated river restoration project (one that ended years of litigation, was a historic settlement for districts in the San Joaquin Valley, and may be a last hope for California salmon) to get their huge water giveaway. And they should be. The stakes are incredibly high for them, billions of dollars from people in Los Angeles, vast wealth for sixty more years. Time is running out, too. If this isn’t done when Bush leaves office, there’s no way a Democratic administration would favor a deal this one-sided. Westlands should play rough right now. But that doesn’t mean we should let them win.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.