Federal Judge gives Westlands and Reclamation six more months to pursue settlement talks on drainage problem

Federal Judge Lawrence O’Neill in Fresno has signed an order allowing the Westlands Water District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation another 6 months to pursue settlement talks without any further implementation of the 2007 Record of Decision regarding Westlands' long-standing farm drainage water problem.

The key final paragraph of O'Neill's order reads as follows:

Because the parties are all in agreement, the Court does not believe oral argument is necessary and takes the motionunder submission on the papers pursuant to Local Rule. 230(g). Having reviewed the Parties’ submissions, the Court concurs that an additional six month delay to permit negotiations to proceed is in the public interest and serves the interests of judicial and Party economy. Therefore, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Westlands’ motion is GRANTED. Federal Defendants may suspend all activities described in the Revised Control Schedule, except the activities related to the Demonstration Plant described in lines 7 through 10 of the Revised Control Schedule, for a period of six months from the date of this Order. Reclamation may, consistent with applicable law, redirect a portion of the appropriations designated for drainage activities within Westlands to other, high-priority activities. The Court cautions the parties that further extension requests will be viewed with disfavor and must be supported by specific showings of: (a) substantial progress toward settlement; and (b) the absence of harm to the public interest resulting from further delay. IT IS SO ORDERED.

Westlands has been in secret talks with the Bureau of Reclamation over resolution of the intractable drainage problem faced by Westlands growers. A 1995 federal court ruled said Reclamation must try to find a solution for problem lands in Westlands that have high levels of selenium. Westlands drainwater funneled to the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the early 1980s triggered bird deaths and deformities in migratory birds nesting at Kesterson. In 2007, the Bureau came up with a $2.7 billion dollar drainage "solution" for Westlands' 600 growers.

The Bureau also said Westlands growers could not pay the $2.7 billon dollar price tag for a drainage solution which included recirculation of the tainted water, reverse osmosis plants and evaporation ponds eerily similar to those at Kesterson. Without Congressional authorization of the $2.7 billion proposal Reclamation has been pursuing specific drainage solutions such as reverse osmosis plants.

Last November Judge O'Neill granted the parties a six-month delay to see if they could reach a settlement. In exchange for idling up to 300,00 acres of selenium-laced farmland, Westlands was expected to ask for a reduction in its $400 million dollar bill for building the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project which brought water to the groundwater-depleted sodium sulfate soils of the western San Joaquin Valley. The OpenSecrets.Org website recently reported Westlands has spent over $600,00 in the last few years on lobbyists to lobby members of Congress to endorse a settlement.