Peltier, water, and the cold hard cash

by Chico del los Pozos

I have concluded over the years that when writing about the complexities of California’s byzantine water world, it is easiest to write about water in terms of cold hard cash. A flowing, living river has aesthetic value to environmentalists and preservationists while a river of dollar bills appeals to a different set of values that even the most apathetic taxpayer can understand.

The dry statistics are that an acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, or enough to cover 93 percent of a football field a foot deep. It will meet the domestic needs of two families of five for a year, if used wisely. At this point, readers usually start getting glassy-eyed and losing interest in any further discussion of water. However, if you equate all those gallons to cash, reader interest perks back up.

Does a $25 billion federal taxpayer gift to a few hundred people pique your interest? Read on.

Depending on where you are in the bucket line, California’s river water stored behind dams can be: (1) free; (2) cheap; (3) well below true retail value; (4) expensive; or (5) in the case of bottled water, extremely expensive. Public water that goes to farmers for free or at subsidized rates as small as $20 to $75 an acre-foot, when placed in plastic bottles with scenic labels and treated slightly, can go for up to $2 million or more when sold by the pint or liter in the grocery store or fancy restaurant. For comparison purposes, that $2 million acre-foot of bottled water can also be sold via ditch to Fresno Irrigation District growers for $12-15 an acre-foot.

Thus, it is understandable that deal-making in California’s changing water world, particularly for irrigation water, is usually done behind closed doors and out of the public spotlight. A glaring example is the current secretive negotiations between Fresno County’s Westlands Water District and the United States Department of Interior. A key negotiator for the Department of Interior - and supposedly the general public’s advocate - is Jason Peltier, named assistant Secretary for Water and Science in July.

Peltier’s previous job was as a lobbyist for the Central Valley Project Contractors’ Association, which represents the irrigation water interests of growers from Redding to Bakersfield. Westlands, not surprisingly, is the largest water district in the Contractors’ Association. Here’s how the spinmasters in the Department of Interior, in a recent press release, explained Peltier’s 13-year stint as a lobbyist.

“As manager of California’s Central Valley Project Water Association from 1988 through 2001, Peltier directed the public education and advocacy efforts of this not-for-profit membership organization,” the press release said.

The New York Times, in a March 3, 2006, article, described Peltier much differently. The Times reported, “Mr. Peltier's role influencing decisions that could have a direct financial impact on his former employer is part of a pattern at the Interior Department over the last five years, critics say, with a revolving door between managers on the government side, and the people who buy or lease federal water, land or forests on the other side.”

Peltier told the Times that when he first came to the Bush administration in 2001, he recused himself from some decisions involving the water district he used to represent, but he said he was granted an exemption because of his expertise in California water issues.

''I was given dispensation early on because of my knowledge of these issues,'' Peltier said, adding, ''I have not had the strict bar of separation on certain issues, but I've been very mindful of the appearance of a conflict and operated accordingly.'' Dispensation? Did the Pope grant that?

Interior officials told the Times Peltier had “cleared” his activities with the ethics office. Assistant Secretary Mark Limbaugh, Peltier's boss, claims Peltier's role is only “advisory.” Peltier '”provides background, insight and advice. He is not in a position to make the ultimate decisions,'' Limbaugh told the Times.

In other words, the fox can guard the henhouse as long as the fox is “very mindful” of the “appearance of a conflict.” At least it’s a family affair. Peltier’s wife, Jean-Mari Peltier, a former lobbyist for citrus growers, served as special adviser on pesticide issues at the EPA during the first Bush administration term before returning to being an Ag lobbyist.

Westlands, with their former employee on the other side of the table, is now putting the finishing touches on a new water delivery contract that could bring the 600,000-acre district of 400 to 600 growers as much as one million acre-feet of water a year for the next 50 years (a 25-year water delivery contract with a virtually automatic renewal for another 25 years).

Do the math.

The water, which comes from hundreds of miles away on Northern California’s Trinity River, is worth up to $500 an acre-foot for urban developers in Central and Southern California. Five hundred million dollars a year of water for 50 years = $25 billion. That averages out to almost $42 million worth of retail water on average over 50 years for each of the 600 growers (less the purchase price which will be under 20 percent of retail value). Expensive water bought cheap and used in some cases to grow subsidized crops like cotton. And under current law the Westlands is free to sell any excess water to the highest urban bidder. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is definitely interested.

The water delivery contract negotiations are being concluded as part of an overall settlement of the Westlands growers’ lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for failure to provide a drainage system. Bureau officials recently unveiled a drainage “solution” for the Westlands’ selenium-laced problem farm lands that could cost taxpayers another $1 billion.

The proposed drainage “solution” has provoked an outcry from national environmental groups who contend it is merely a re-creation of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge disaster in early 1980s when Westlands toxic agricultural drainage poisoned the food chain at the Merced County refuge, where the tainted water was funneled to evaporate in deadly ponds.

The Los Angeles Times reported July 8 that the proposed solution, including building over 3,000 acres of new evaporation ponds, has raised fears of another Kesterson-like environmental catastrophe.

“My God,” Ed Imhoff, a retired Department of Interior officials who headed a five-year, $50 million study of the western San Joaquin Valley drainage problem in the late 1980s, told the LA Times. “Why would we be replicating something that caused all the deaths and deformities at Kesterson? Why would we do that?”

When Imhoff’s study group released their final report in 1990, it recommended, among other water-saving measures, idling all the high selenium lands in the Westlands that were generating the poisonous drainage water - up to 300,000 acres.

Jason Peltier, who was then a lobbyist for the Westlands, told the media at that time, “The sooner this report gets put on a shelf and starts gathering dust the better.”

Under an earlier proposal as part of the drainage plan, Interior would have bought out the badlands and idled them. Westlands and Peltier see if differently. The last proposal calls for Interior to merely buy the federal irrigation rights to the badlands. In other words, Westlands growers will get to keep their high selenium lands and will be give well over three-quarters of a billion dollars to simply stop irrigation with federal water. However, they will still be able to use that land for other purposes, including irrigating with non-federal water.

When asked by the Los Angeles Times if this could be true, Kirk Rodgers, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, responded, “No decisions have been made on that.”

One thing is certain. America’s most expensive irrigation project in the middle of a salty desert is about to get a lot more expensive.

West side tractor drivers know Chico de los Pozos as a tall man in a huge sombrero riding a camel, backlit by the setting son on the ridges of the western hills.