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Protect California’s water, kill the sleazy Westlands contract

The Westlands Water District has engaged in some sleazy maneuvers over the years, but this one, which threatens the Bay Area’s water supply, tops them all.

The Trump administration, led by Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, is poised to give a massive quantity of cheap federal water to the Central Valley water district — the same district that paid Bernhardt’s firm $1.3 million over a five-year period for lobbying services before he took the Interior job.

It was Bernhardt’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Westlands that led to Congress in 2016 approving a law that makes the current outrageous water deal possible.

The contract would permanently lock in an agreement to give Westlands up to 1.15 million acre-feet of water a year, enough to supply 2 million California families.

Every drop of water diverted to Westlands will be at the expense of the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which Bay Area businesses and residents rely on for about 40% of their fresh water.

Never mind that the threat of climate change increases the chances of drought in future years, reducing water flows into the Delta.

And never mind that if Westlands finds itself with any excess water, the deal enables the district to fatten its bank accounts by selling surpluses to other districts. In return, Westlands will pay a little over $300 million to help pay for the dams and canals that transport the water.

The public has until Jan. 8 to offer written comments on the agreement. (Comments can be mailed to Emma Leal, Bureau of Reclamation, South-Central California Area Office, 1243 N St., Fresno, CA 93721, or emailed to Californians should make clear their opposition.

Westlands is the largest agricultural water district in the nation. The district likes to portray itself as filled with mom-and-pop family farming operations, but the fact is most of the district’s acreage is owned by large, wealthy corporate enterprises.

Westlands farmers have spent millions lobbying for a guaranteed supply of water to irrigate their 600,000 acres of farmland, including about 85,000 acres of almond trees.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that California will harvest a record 2.5 billion pounds of almonds in 2019. Westlands farmers claim that they need the water to “feed America,” but California exports about two-thirds of its almond crop to Asia. And, get this: It takes about a gallon of water to produce every almond.

In 2016, in the wake of congressional action on the Flint, Michigan, drinking water crisis, Bernhardt lobbied Congress to add a rider allowing water districts to convert temporary water contracts with the federal government into permanent deals.

Now, the Bureau of Reclamation, which is under the Department of Interior, says that Bernhardt was not involved in any way in making the current deal with Westlands. It wants us to believe that it was mere coincidence that the Westlands agreement was the first deal reached under the new law.

Californians should pressure the Bureau of Reclamation to kill a deal that puts the interests of wealthy, Big Ag businessmen ahead of the needs of current and future California residents who rely on a healthy Delta for their supply of fresh water.

It takes about a gallon of water to grow a single almond in California. Farmers in the state expect to harvest 2.5 billion pounds of almonds this year.


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