More environmental mischief, and another batch of rich pickpockets at the public trough

[update: the Chron has a story on this here]

At the end of my post on coalmining I asked “What more damage will they do before we finally run them out of town?” and a California reader came back with two stories:

Well, the Department of the Interior will make it their mission to give the freshwater of the west to farming corporations in secret talks.

Under Gale Norton, the Bureau of Reclamation is giving away vast amounts of water (which is the same as wealth out here) to farmers under laughable terms. In the San Joaquin Valley, Reclamation was held liable for providing a drain as part of its water supply project. The soils on the west side of the Valley are naturally high in selenium; Kesterson Reservoir, their first attempt at a drain for the west side turned into a selenium-poisoned death trap for birds and wildlife. Without that drain, west side soils have become salinated; in some places it looks like snow drifts. Reclamation studied its options for the drain: a pipe to the ocean is prohibitively expensive; a pipe to the Delta would dump selenium-laden water into the largest on-going environmental collapse in California; land retirement is politically impossible. Strangely, another Kesterson became their best option. This Kesterson will cost $2.5B, to build evaporation ponds, to keep birds out, and to gather and truck away concentrated selenium salts.

After Reclamation picked this awful best option, Westlands Water District, a collection of agribusiness companies, offered to take the problem off their hands. They would assume all liability for the drain, and they promise they can build it. What would Reclamation offer Westlands to solve this drainage problem? Reclamation’s first offer was fee simple ownership of San Luis Reservoir, all of the canal infrastructure on the west side and outright ownership of the water rights they’ve been using. (San Luis Reservoir is a huge buffer for the water projects; if the Delta were to collapse in an earthquake, we’ll rely on San Luis Reservoir to provide Los Angeles with two years of water during Delta reconstruction. Should that emergency come and Westlands owned San Luis outright, I have every faith they would act in Los Angeles’ best interests, for only a very small fee.) Reclamation’s offer, sincere though it was, was so outrageous they had to retract it. Now, in exchange for Westlands assuming liability for the drain, Reclamation is trying to give them forgiveness for their debt for building the supply part of the project, and fifty year contracts [update: a senior Congressional staffer says this is now 60 years with an option to renew–MO] for huge amounts of water (about 15% of the federal water supply in California).

Westlands has not said how it will provide this drain, for the very good reason that it cannot build a cost-effective drain either. What was impossible for the feds is also impossible for them. Westlands will delay on this drain until it gets called on its assumption of liability. Then, the agribusinesses in Westlands will stop farming, and they will sell water to Los Angeles for another thirty years, as water grows ever more scarce and valuable. Who says big business doesn’t prepare for climate change? They are setting themselves up for more than two generations with this deal, and the Bush Administration is helping every way they can. Why, Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Peltier, who worked directly under Gale Norton overseeing all of Reclamation has left to manage Westlands Water District! Susan Ramos, an Assistant Regional Director for the Mid-Pacific office of Reclamation, who used to approve water transfers in California, now works at Westlands, too.

This is a huge transfer of wealth from the nation to a small group of agribusiness corporations who have been receiving water, energy and crop subsidies for two generations. As their fields inevitably fail from saltification, the Bush administration is working to secure them another five decades of staggering wealth. (About four hundred farming corporations would control roughly a million acre-feet per year, for which urban water users would pay three or four hundred dollars per acrefoot now. In drought times, the numbers are even more astronomical, and Westlands would be a powerful seller among a very few sellers.) Worse, the negotiations for this exchange are secret:

Important details of the proposal presented behind closed doors by Kirk Rogers, Sacramento-based regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, still remain cloaked in secrecy.

Environmentalists, likewise, wonder what power the public will have to oversee Westlands’ drainage program and under what conditions water deliveries might still be reduced. The proposed 50-year water contract, twice the current length, worries some.

This give-away doesn’t have to happen like this, except that the Bush administration wants to give the wealth of the country to agribusiness corporations. If the deal were legit, if Westlands knew it could build the drain and if it were truly interested in farming, then Reclamation could offer them debt forgiveness and irrigation easements instead of complete water rights. That way, if they don’t build the drain and can no longer farm, when they aren’t using that water for irrigation, it would revert to the nation, who could sell its use at auction. Under an administration less dedicated to using agency decisions to give the wealth of our natural resources to the already wealthy, Reclamation would at least bargain with Westlands.

I don’t understand the dealings in the Klamath as well as the ones in the San Joaquin Valley. But the story sure sounded familiar to me:

Critics warn that the evolving 60-year agreement is being shaped by Bush administration officials and is looking more and more like a $250 million-plus gift to irrigators, assuring them of ample water and subsidized power to pump it in exchange for a huge but possibly elusive environmental victory — knocking down four dams on the river. …

Several participants said hopes for a balanced agreement began to fade last fall and accelerated with the settlement group’s release of the January framework. Among its many principles, the details of which are now being negotiated, is a pledge to increase minimum water supplies for irrigators, and protect farming operations on the 39,000-acre Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where costly pumping drains rich lake-bottom lands for farming.

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.