Use Westlands’ Irrigation Water to Restore Rivers and Delta, Salmon Fisheries

Congress considers continuing irrigation of contaminated lands; C-WIN proposes ambitious plan to end water waste

When Congress reauthorizes the San Luis Act of 1960, the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) urges Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Representative Grace Napolitano (D-CA) to reallocate contaminated irrigation water from 379,000 acres of drainage impaired lands in the San Joaquin Valley to salmon fishery and river restoration projects throughout California’s Central Valley. Retiring these lands could free up at least 600,000 acre-feet of water for restoration projects throughout the Central Valley and Trinity River.

“Time is of the essence to implement these ideas,” said C-WIN President Carolee Krieger. The San Luis Act originally authorized use of irrigation water on Westlands Water District soils that leached salts and selenium causing pollution of the San Joaquin River and embryonic defects in bird populations in the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of acres of once productive cropland are now impaired and must be cleaned up. “This travesty of wasteful water use has gone on way too long. Congress must stop it and divert the water to ecological and fisheries restoration. “Otherwise, it could be too late for endangered species like salmon and the communities up and down California that rely on them,” Krieger added.

Senator Johnson chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Rep. Napolitano chairs the House Subcommittee on Water and Power of the Committee on Natural Resources.

Under C-WIN’s proposal, retiring the impaired lands from receiving irrigation water would dramatically slow the rate of contamination of lower Westside lands. The federal Central Valley Project (CVP), which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, must then shift water to restoration projects to benefit the San Joaquin River, the Bay-Delta estuary, Trinity River, and salmon fisheries. Water quality in the Delta and Trinity River would improve, and fisheries recovery would benefit commercial fishing and Hoopa and Yurok Indian tribal communities hit hard by Trinity River diversions to the federal CVP could see their livelihoods, culture, and economies improve as a result.

“The federal government can act now to fix a festering pollution problem in the San Joaquin Valley, a problem they helped make,” said C-WIN board member Mike Jackson. “If we miss this chance, it will be another generation or two before the law might be changed again. If we fail now, the problem will only get worse.”

The Act, which authorizes delivery of CVP water to Westlands Water District, is up for reauthorization this year, and congressional water and power committees are currently studying the drainage issues involved. Intense lobbying is under way from interests on both sides of the issue. Historically, Westlands has gotten its way. Moreover, even if its lands are retired, Westlands officials maintain they should be able to retain the water to resell to others. Under the Westlands proposal, they could sell the water, which originates in Trinity County 400 miles north, to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California or other urban areas.

C-WIN opposes treating saved water this way; it does not belong to the water districts but to the people of California and should further the purposes of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992, which includes wildlife and fishery restoration as a core purpose of the federal Central Valley Project. California’s Constitution, in Article X, Section 2, prohibits waste and unreasonable use of water anywhere in California. Moreover, state water law governs how water rights are allocated, including those held by the federal Central Valley Project, which contracts with Westlands to deliver the water that contaminates the lands at issue.

Impaired lands in the western San Joaquin Valley currently face high water tables and water quality contamination from salinity and selenium, which occur naturally in local soils. The contaminated water plaguing these lands comes from intensive irrigation of lands upslope in the western San Joaquin Valley. As the irrigation water drains off, contaminants flow to the lower, compromised lands, and eventually reaches the San Joaquin River, one of the most polluted rivers in the continental U.S., and contributes significantly to deterioration of water quality in the Bay-Delta estuary, a source of fresh water to 22 million Californians.

C-WIN believes that ceasing irrigation of Westlands’ 379,000 acres is the only cost effective and technologically feasible long term solution.


C-WIN is a non-profit public benefit corporation formed under the laws of the State of California for the purpose of protecting and restoring the scenery, fish and wildlife resources, water quality, recreational opportunities, agricultural uses, and other natural environmental resources and uses of the rivers and streams of California, including the Bay-Delta, its watershed, and its underlying groundwater resources.

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