WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators decided Thursday to require congressional review of any settlement reached between Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel and California agricultural interests over water subsidies in the Central Valley.
Under language attached to a stopgap funding measure, Hodel would be unable to submit a new subsidy plan to a court before April 15 and only after Congress had 30 days to review it.
The language was added to the measure amid rumors that Hodel had negotiated a secret agreement to provide large farmers in California's Central Valley with extremely cheap federal water and, at the same time, allow them to escape responsibility for major, costly drainage problems.
Rumors of Agreement
California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said he learned last month that a preliminary agreement between Hodel and the Westlands Water District would have given some farmers water at a rate as low as $7.50 an acre-foot--about half of what it costs the federal government to deliver it.
Westlands is a Fresno-based agency that contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation for about 1 million acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot is the quantity of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot.
The Interior Department has been negotiating with Westlands to resolve a dispute over how much water the district is entitled to and how much it must pay for it. The government contends the district illegally annexed 156,000 acres for irrigation, and Hodel has denied that a preliminary agreement exists.
A spokesman for the Interior Department said it did not appear a settlement would be reached soon.
"There are proposals floating around, bits and pieces of an agreement that Westlands did propose, but we haven't accepted anything," the spokesman said, adding, "There are counterproposals involved."