These are not normal times. Not when the Environmental Defense Fund teams up with the Westlands Water District to jointly explore ways of purifying contaminated irrigation runoff water and possibly reselling it to cities. Not when Westlands, often held up as the archetype of federal irrigation subsidy rip-offs, hires longtime reclamation foe David Weiman as a Washington lobbyist.
But neither are times entirely normal when selenium runoff from Westlands farms causes death and deformity among ducks in a wildlife preserve and prompts the Interior Department to threaten to cut off irrigation water to 40,000 acres. Indeed, the general problem of contaminated irrigation runoff is a serious threat to the future of agriculture in the entire San Joaquin Valley.
EDF, Westlands and Weiman. Strange bedfellows indeed. The Berkeley-based office of EDF under lawyer Tom Graff has been a major irritant over the years to the old-line water Establishment, filing lawsuits hither and yon to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and other waterways. For years in Washington, Weiman has been a single-minded foe of what he sees as a reclamation boondoggle under every congressman's desk. And Westlands . . . well, Westlands is viewed by the Weimans of the world as the supreme example of the 1902 Reclamation Act used to con the taxpayer in every conceivable way.
Matching this odd trio is like putting Napoleon in charge of the British army or making Barry Goldwater the Democratic national chairman. But so far it's working. Congress has passed, and the President has signed, legislation to give Westlands and EDF a $3.7-million loan to study experimental methods for removing chemical salts from Westlands runoff and finding legal ways of selling the reclaimed water to others.
Other environmental groups may be raising eyebrows over EDF's slipping under the covers with a longtime foe. But EDF will receive up to $250,000, to be repaid by Westlands, for monitoring the program and paying EDF's administrative and technical costs. Both EDF and Westlands reserve the right to disagree publicly on differences of opinion during the study process, and on other matters. Indeed, they are expected soon to be foes in a court contest of another aspect of Westlands water operations. But their formal proposal statement notes, "They nevertheless agree that close communication and consultation is a better means of attempting to resolve their differing perspectives than the more traditional confrontationist approach which has characterized their relationship in the past."
This is a significant new approach for an environmental group--and for Westlands, too. Some valley farmers must have wondered about the mental health of Westlands General Manager Jerry Butchert. But, if it works, everyone benefits. If it doesn't, you can be sure that Tom Graff will be around with subpoena in hand during the next environmental crisis.