WASHINGTON — After months of wrangling between environmentalists and agricultural interests, the Bush Administration said Wednesday that it will renew 28 contracts to provide irrigation districts in California's Central Valley with water from the Sierra watershed.
For the first time, however, the government will prepare an environmental impact statement that could result in substantial revisions in the 40-year water supply agreements, the Administration said.
Environmentalists had hoped to make the water contracts contingent upon completion of environmental impact studies, but Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. steadfastly insisted that he was morally and legally bound to renew the contracts when they expire next February.
At stake in the decision are water supply contracts in 28 districts that are part of the Friant Unit of the Central Valley irrigation project, where dams and canals divert water from the Sierra to irrigate the valley's once-arid farm land.
Under the compromise reached by officials of the Interior Department, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the President's Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Justice, the impact studies will be carried out after the contracts are renewed.
Depending on the conclusions contained in the studies, the contracts could be revised to change prices, conservation requirements or delivery arrangements. Such revisions, however, will not reduce the amount of water farmers are assured of receiving for the next 40 years.
Criticism of the compromise was swift, most of it focusing on the decision to extend the contracts without any reduction or review of the amount of water being provided to the irrigation districts.
The compromise "perpetuates the very problem it purports to examine," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the subcommittee on water, power and offshore energy resources of the House Interior Committee. "What value is it if the amount of water is non-negotiable? It is a case study in duplicity."
Officials of the Council on Environmental Quality estimated that the environmental impact statement could be completed in about two years, but Interior Department officials said it would more likely require several years.
More significant, both sides agreed, was that the compromise signaled a policy precedent that is apt to be followed in renewing about 300 additional irrigation water contracts worth billions of dollars.
Altogether, the 28 Central Valley contracts call for delivery of about 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year. Under the expiring agreements, the irrigation districts paid the Bureau of Reclamation $3.50 per acre-foot for the water. Under the new contracts, the price will jump to $15, with a provision for annual review. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot.)
Continuing the current amounts of water for another 40 years was criticized by Hal Candee, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the Interior Department to require an environmental impact statement before renewal of the contracts.
The Administration deserves credit "for persuading the Interior Department to back off its hard-line opposition to preparing an environmental impact statement," Candee said. "At the same time, we take strong exception to the Interior Department's decision not to review . . . the quantity of water to be diverted from the San Joaquin River to California water districts."
His criticism was echoed by Sen. William Bradley (D-N.J.), chairman of the water and power subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"It is both short-sighted and incomprehensible," he said, "for the secretary to turn his back on California and allocate so much water--enough for 7.5 million people--without considering in advance the future and competing needs and without a clear assessment of the contracts' impact on the environment."
The interior secretary insisted that the environmental impact statement "will involve the public to assure that the environmental concerns will be addressed."
Lujan said he has also directed the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, to determine whether the new agreements might affect endangered or threatened wildlife species.
When federal officials began anticipating the expiration of the contracts last year, the Interior Department disputed the EPA's assertion that renewal would require preparation of an environmental impact statement.
Eventually, the disagreement between Interior and the EPA led to hearings before the President's Council on Environmental Quality. At those hearings, Richard Sanderson of the EPA's Office of Federal Activities said the Interior Department was acting "as if nothing had changed over the last 40 years, and as if nothing will change over the next 40 years."
Council Chairman Michael DeLand called the compromise a "significant step" and a "sensible balancing between obvious environmental concerns and the need to provide water."
EPA officials, who declined to be quoted by name, were less enthusiastic. Insisting that California's explosive growth demands a re-evaluation of water policy and water use, one characterized the decision as "not all bad, but much less than it could be environmentally." Last spring, Lujan went ahead with a 40-year renewal of a contract for the Orange Cove Irrigation District, which also falls within the Friant Unit. Although it involved only 39,000 acre-feet per year, it created intense controversy because it was viewed as a precedent.
Interior officials said the Orange Cove contract will be made subject to the same provision that will permit the other 28 to be modified, if necessary, after completion of the environmental impact statement.