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The $500-Million Water Bill

January 19, 2002

The Westlands Water District's problems began about 600,000 years ago when much of California's now-fertile Central Valley was a lake and the lake bed was a layer of clay 20 to 200 feet thick. That clay may wind up costing the taxpayers of the United States $500 million or more in addition to the millions it already has consumed. Rather than undertake a costly boondoggle to better drain the land, the government may buy as much as a third of the sprawling district, the nation's largest. Taxpayers should favor a buyout, if a decent price can be reached.

Here's the science: Subsidized federal water that irrigates crops in parts of the 600,000-acre district does not naturally drain off or filter deep into underground aquifers. The water is polluted by salts that collect during irrigation and build up atop the clay layer rather than draining away, ultimately destroying crops. Worse yet, some of the waste irrigation water is contaminated by selenium, which was blamed for a massive kill of ducks and other waterfowl at Kesterson Reservoir in the mid-1980s.

The federal government knew about this problem when it began planning to irrigate Westlands in the early 1950s. To fix this flaw in the pet project of the late Rep. B.F. Sisk (D-Fresno) and burgeoning corporate farms, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed building a huge drain to carry the polluted water back north and dump it in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Ultimately it was to flow through San Francisco Bay and into the ocean.

The drain wasn't finished, and Westlands, which covers a 70-mile-long, once-arid stretch of western Fresno and Kings counties, has successfully sued the government to force it to carry out its promise to fix the drainage problem. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently released studies indicating that the solution would cost as much as $3.8 billion.

What happened to the drain? It was only partly built when environmental opposition mounted. The delta was polluted already. It made no sense to dump even more polluted water into the estuary. For years, the farmers and government sent the runoff to Kesterson Reservoir, which in effect became a polluted sump. This ended after the massive bird kill of the 1980s.

There was some talk of completing the drain, but that is an environmental impossibility now. The $3.8-billion solution would be to treat the water in a sort of desalinization plant. Far better to stop irrigating the land. The sticking point is likely to be the price. Westlands farmers are seeking $1,500 to $2,500 an acre, the market value of fully productive land. Those prices, which would add up to about a half-billion dollars, are far too high. First, farmers have benefited from federally subsidized irrigation water all these years, and, second, much of the land is so polluted it can't be farmed profitably. Some sort of purchase or conservation easement or the marketing of some of the water to other willing buyers is the ultimate solution.

Westlands was a 1950s inspiration of farmers and eager federal dam builders who sought to make the desert bloom. Salt is triumphing in the end.

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