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March 3, 2020 – On February 28, the powerful Westlands Water District signed a permanent water repayment contract with the Bureau of Reclamation to provide Central Valley Project water in perpetuity to the growers in the powerful, politically-connected water district on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The annual irrigation deliveries provided to Westlands, the largest agricultural water district in the nation, amount to approximately double the amount of water that City of Los Angeles residents use during a year.

Thomas Birmingham, General Manager of the Westlands Water District, issued a statement celebrating the execution of the District’s Repayment Contract that the Bureau of Reclamation and the district signed that day.  

The document converts “temporary” water service contracts to “permanent” repayment contracts, a major goal of Trump’s Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former Westlands and oil industry lobbyist.

“Today, Westlands Water District and the Bureau of Reclamation signed Irrigation and M&I Contract No. 14-06-200-495A-LTR1-P, which converted Westlands’ water service contract to a repayment contract, which will remain in effect so long as the Westlands pays applicable charges, consistent with section 9(d) of the Reclamation Act of August 4, 1939,” said Birmingham.

“Westlands was one of more than 75 water agencies that contract with the United States for the delivery of water service from the Central Valley Project that elected to convert their water service contract to repayment contracts pursuant to section 4011 of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The effective date of Westlands repayment contract will be June 1, 2020. Prior to that date, Westlands will continue to receive water under an interim renewal contract,” said Birmingham.

Birmingham also claimed that the conversion of “temporary” water service contracts to “permanent” repayment contracts was an Obama administration mandate.

“When President Barack Obama signed the WIIN Act in 2016, it was with the express intent of improving the nation’s water infrastructure, especially in the western United States. Section 4011 (a)(1) of Subtitle J of the Act provides that the Secretary of the Interior shall convert water service contracts to repayment contracts at the request of any existing water service contractor,” said Birmingham.

Ernest Conant, California-Great Basin’s regional director, who signed the contracts at Folsom Lake on the American River east of Sacramento Friday, also proclaimed in a statement, “Completing these contracts is a big win-win for our contractors and the American public. The federal government will receive early payment of over $200 million, which Congress directed should be used for much-needed storage projects.” 

The signing of Westlands’ permanent contract took place after Trump traveled to Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley on Wednesday, February 19, 2020 to sign a Record of Decision (ROD) on his controversial federal Biological Opinion that maximizes water deliveries from the pumps that divert water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta — at great expense to the Delta and West Coast fisheries.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, criticized the signing of the permanent contract with Westlands for a number of reasons, including failure to consult with Northern California Tribes and Northern California water users and the violation of federal laws such as the Central Valley Project Improvement Ac (CVPIA).

“So with the help of David Bernhardt and the Trump Administration, the Westlands Water District gets a permanent water contract and claims it is an Obama mandate,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “The Delta and 99 percent of Californians lose. The Delta, Northern California Tribes, and water users were never consulted.”

“Westlands and the US Bureau of Reclamation have failed to follow the law and have made a mockery of Senator Feinstein’s claim that existing laws such as NEPA and the Endangered Species Act would be strictly adhered to under the WIIN Act. USBR and WWD have not complied with the Central Valley Improvement Act. The public has yet to see the contract and its supporting documents. These are a few of the many reasons we will be joining our partners in litigation,” she stated.

“At a time of unprecedented climate changes and droughts we should not be circumventing the law and promising by federal contract far more water than actually exists to one large irrigation group at the expense of others,” Barrigan-Parrilla concluded. 

Westlands Water District describes itself as “the largest agricultural water district in the United States, made up of more than 1,000 square miles of prime farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties. Westlands provides water to 675 family-owned farms that average 600 acres in size.”

However, critics of the contract’s signing strongly disagree with this assessment that this land is “prime farmland,” noting that the district is located on arid, drainage-impaired land located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Fishing groups, Tribes, conservationists, family farmers and environmental justice advocates have been pushing to retire much of this land from agricultural production for many years.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District, City of Folsom, Placer County Water Agency, City of Roseville, Sacramento County Water Agency, Sacramento Municipal Utility District and San Juan Water District also signed contracts similar to the one that Westlands signed the same day.

Here is Birmingham’s full statement:

“Today, Westlands Water District and the Bureau of Reclamation signed Irrigation and M&I Contract No. 14-06-200-495A-LTR1-P, which converted Westlands’ water service contract to a repayment contract, which will remain in effect so long as the Westlands pays applicable charges, consistent with section 9(d) of the Reclamation Act of August 4, 1939. Westlands was one of more than 75 water agencies that contract with the United States for the delivery of water service from the Central Valley Project that elected to convert their water service contract to repayment contracts pursuant to section 4011 of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The effective date of Westlands repayment contract will be June 1, 2020. Prior to that date, Westlands will continue to receive water under an interim renewal contract.

When President Barack Obama signed the WIIN Act in 2016, it was with the express intent of improving the nation’s water infrastructure, especially in the western United States. Section 4011 (a)(1) of Subtitle J of the Act provides that the Secretary of the Interior shall convert water service contracts to repayment contracts at the request of any existing water service contractor.

Section 4011 was included in the WIIN Act to create a source of money that the Bureau of Reclamation could use to construct water storage projects around the west. It was intended by the Act’s co-author, Senator Dianne Feinstein, to help California ‘prepare for [that] future while providing us with access to more water now.’ When President Obama signed the bill into law, he stated that, ‘This important partnership has helped us achieve a careful balance based on existing state and federal law.’”

Converting ‘temporary’ water service contracts to ‘permanent’ repayment contracts is not uncommon. In fact, an underlying principle of federal Reclamation law — that water users who have repaid the construction costs of a project would have a permanent right to the use of water developed by a project — has been reaffirmed by Congress multiple times since it was first laid out in the Reclamation Act of 1902. In the Central Valley Project, the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to convert water service contracts in the Friant Division to repayment contracts to generate revenue for the San Joaquin River restoration program, and those water service contracts were in fact converted to repayment contracts. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, as of October 2019 more than 75 agencies that had “temporary” water service contracts to receive Central Valley Project water, including the State of California Department of Fish and Wildlife, have exercised the option provided by the WIIN Act to convert their contracts to “permanent” repayment contracts. The contract terms proposed in the repayment contracts for Westlands and other Central Valley Project contractors under the WIIN Act are nearly identical to those in the Friant Division repayment contracts.

Further, as President Obama also noted, the provisions of Subtitle J of the WIIN Act were intended to help meet California’s long-term water needs, helping to ‘assure that California is more resilient in the face of growing water demands and drought-based uncertainty.’ In the case of Westlands’ contract conversion, like all contract conversions done before or after, it offers a win-win for all parties. The Westlands contract conversion will accelerate payment of approximately $200 million to the federal government years before payment otherwise would be due. This money, pursuant to the WIIN Act, will be placed in the Reclamation Water Storage Account to be used for the construction of water storage and supply projects that can benefit all Central Valley Project purposes.”