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Time's running out to comment on water contract negotiations

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bakersfield Californian, Sarah Ruby

Published September 13, 2005

Federal regulators are negotiating an agricultural water contract in the Central Valley, the latest of several dozen deals that could tie up water resources for the next 50 years.

Thursday is the public's last day to comment on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's proposal to renew its long-term contract with Westlands Water District, which provides water to some 800 farms in Fresno and Kings counties.

Environmentalists criticize the contract as a sweetheart deal for farmers, who pay less for water than urban users. If the contract is approved, Westlands will control vast quantities of cheap water that environmentalists fear will be sold for a profit to urban users -- the same taxpayers that sold the water to farmers in the first place.

"California cannot adequately plan for future water needs if water is being given away this way," said Bill Walker, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group in Oakland.

Environmental Working Group released a report on this topic today.

Westlands' farmers need every drop of water they get, said Thaddeus Bettner, a manager at Westlands Water District. Selling it would be an expensive bureaucratic mess, he said.

"(The water) is going to stay here," Bettner said. "We are forced to take land out of production on an annual basis because we don't have enough water. To imply we don't use all our water is crazy."

Under the contract, Westlands could get as much as 1.15 million acre-feet of water each year, maybe more. One acre-foot is enough to sustain one to two households for a year.

"Westlands, as it exists today, does indeed have a demand for that water," said Donna Tegelman, a regional resources manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

If it can't use the water in the future, the district could sell it to urban users, she said, but only after forfeiting the agricultural discount, performing environmental studies and getting federal approval.

Contracts with Westlands and other districts are not new. They are long-term renewals, and Westlands' could boost its water allotment by 37,090 acre-feet per year. Under the proposed contract, the district will pay more for the water it gets, Bettner said.

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