Westlands and Reclamation: an eternal love

Submitted: Sep 08, 2017
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

Westlands Water District floats like a tumescent turd through the sewers of the Trump administration. -- blj

 

Criticism of Westlands’ cozy relationship with Reclamation ramped up this year when Donald Trump’s administration picked David Bernhardt to be the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of the Interior, which supervises the Reclamation bureau.

Bernhardt is a former Westlands lobbyist who has sued the Interior Department and lobbied the Justice Department and Congress to finalize a settlement that could be worth more than $375 million to Westlands. -- Sacramento Bee, Sept. 8, 2017

 

9-8-17

Sacramento Bee

Audit finds improper taxpayer subsidies for Delta tunnels. Will it halt the project?

Ryan Sabalow And Dale Kasler

http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article172070332.html

In a potential setback for the controversial Delta tunnels, federal auditors say $50 million in taxpayer dollars were used to improperly subsidize San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts as they helped plan the project.

In spite of insistence from Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration that no taxpayer dollars would be used to finance the tunnels, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation obtained $50 million to pay San Joaquin Valley districts for tunnels planning over a seven-year span, according to an audit released Friday by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s inspector general.

The audit said Reclamation used “a complex, obscure process that was not disclosed.”

 “We found no evidence that USBR’s subsidy was ever disclosed in annual budget justifications or financial reports, and USBR officials could not give a valid rationale for providing the subsidy,” the watchdog agency said in the report.

The audit comes at a crucial moment in the decade-long planning of the tunnels project. State and federal water districts south of the Delta are about to begin voting on whether to pay for the tunnels, formally known as California WaterFix.

Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for Brown’s Natural Resources Agency, said she doesn’t think the audit will impede the project in any way. She declined comment on the allegations in the audit, saying “it’s a federal issue.”

Jason Peltier of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Agency, an umbrella organization that includes several federal contractors, added that he doesn’t think contractors’ votes on WaterFix will be influenced by Friday’s news. “I don’t think it’ll affect people’s decisions on the project,” he said.

But opponents of the project said the audit shows there’s no way it would pencil out without taxpayer subsidies. If contractors needed help paying for the planning process, “how can they handle paying for construction costs starting at $17 billion?” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of the anti-tunnels group Restore the Delta. “Ratepayers are really getting hip to this.”

Reclamation officials insisted they did nothing wrong, according to the audit.

Environmentalists and others have long accused Reclamation of having an incestuous relationship with irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley. Much of their criticism is directed at Westlands Water District, an influential farm-water agency in Kings and Frenso counties that buys irrigation water pumped in from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Westlands is one of the key water contractors whose members are expected to pay an estimated $17.1 billion to build two tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham said water contractors and others involved in planning the tunnels knew that Reclamation was putting money into the effort, but believed the agency was following the law.

“This wasn’t any secret,” Birmingham said. “Everyone understood what the Bureau of Reclamation was doing, the source of the money....There has been very careful accountings of all of that.”

Criticism of Westlands’ cozy relationship with Reclamation ramped up this year when Donald Trump’s administration picked David Bernhardt to be the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of the Interior, which supervises the Reclamation bureau.

Bernhardt is a former Westlands lobbyist who has sued the Interior Department and lobbied the Justice Department and Congress to finalize a settlement that could be worth more than $375 million to Westlands.

Documents obtained by environmental advocate Patricia Schifferle show he helped write amendments to a $558 million water bill, approved by Congress in December, that steers more water to Westlands and other water districts and eases construction of new dams.

Schifferle and others say that, as a top official, Bernhardt could give Westlands preferential treatment in how Interior implements the 2016 water legislation and the future settlement in a long-standing dispute over drainage. He also will be in a position to influence permitting for the tunnels project, which could ease deliveries of water to Westlands and Silicon Valley and Southern California urban water districts.

The Brown administration has insisted that those water agencies are on the hook for the costs of the tunnels – not taxpayers. Water districts have spent nearly $250 million on planning the tunnel.

 

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