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Westlands Water Deal Is Assailed

Feinstein, Boxer join in opposing U.S. bid to tap state water projects for $140-million settlement.

January 10, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Ever since the federal government proposed a $140-million settlement for a handful of families whose farms have been turned into a salt wasteland, the deal has been plagued by one question: Where would the money come from?

California's two senators, along with 31 members of Congress representing every part of the state, are objecting to a plan that would fund the settlement by raiding several other water projects statewide.

In a letter Wednesday to U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were joined by a majority of the state's congressional delegation in criticizing the newest funding plan.

To help pay for the settlement, which would retire 32,400 acres of salt-laden farmland, the Department of the Interior is seeking to tap into $24 million in statewide water projects, including reclamation efforts in Long Beach, Orange County, the San Gabriel Valley and San Diego.

The elected officials, urging a different approach, want the settlement money to come out of the Department of Justice's Judgment Fund.

"We urge you to refrain from tapping authorized California water projects and funds to settle the dispute," the letter states. "The precedent being set.... is politically unacceptable to any and all states."

In a decade-long lawsuit, the farming families had argued that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and their own Westlands Water District had failed to build a drainage system to remove the toxic runoff from irrigating an ancient seabed. This failure to finish one of the biggest irrigation projects in the West doomed their land, they said, turning fertile soil into a boggy salt land.

Last month, as a settlement to the lawsuit was announced, the Interior Department proposed that at least some of the money come from a fund to restore the fisheries of Northern California. Environmentalists then filed objections to the settlement in court.

Four prominent families, including California Secretary of State Bill Jones and his relatives, would receive a total of $70 million from the federal government under the proposed deal.

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