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Water districts' bills for power criticized

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Fresno Bee, Mark Grossi

Published May 29, 2007

Farmers in the Westlands Water District are underpaying to the tune of $71 million annually on cheap electricity for federal water deliveries, says an environmental watchdog group.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group in Oakland is expected today to release a report showing retail rates in California are 12 times higher than federal bills paid by Westlands and other districts. Taxpayers deserve a better shake, the group said.

"We think it is outrageous," said Bill Walker, West Coast vice president of the Working Group, based in Washington, D.C. "We will make every attempt to get this information in front of decision makers."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation charges the low rates for hydroelectric power used to deliver trillions of gallons of water to federal farm customers. Federal law allows the bureau to collect only enough money to cover costs associated with power plants built in the 1950s and 1960s.

One federal official criticized the Environmental Work Group, saying the group reached unreasonable conclusions because federal law does not allow the bureau to make profits from its hydroelectric rates by charging more.

The bureau's 11 hydroelectric plants create the power to deliver water through a 400-mile system of canals and reservoirs from Redding to Bakersfield, known as the Central Valley Project. The water is used on 3 million acres of farmland. The 600,000-acre Westlands in west Fresno and Kings counties is the bureau's biggest customer.

The river water for Westlands deliveries comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and it must be lifted uphill by pumps from the delta to reach Westlands.

The federal water project was designed decades ago to produce its own electricity for such power-intensive deliveries, Westlands officials said. Tom Birmingham, district general manager, said farmers have been shouldering the responsibility of the power generation for years.

"The energy that is used to pump project water is generated by project facilities, all of which we, water users, are paying for," he said.

Westlands and the Environmental Working Group have been at odds in the past when the environmentalists released other critical reports, suggesting the west-side farmers are benefiting from subsidies on water and crops.

The Environmental Working Group report this week showed Westlands in 2002 paid about $6.3 million for electricity related to federal water delivery. If the district had paid the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. rate for farm customers, the bill would have been $71.3 million higher, the report said.

Walker said the report is not intended to be an attack on every farmer. But he said there are nine districts that had subsidies of more than $1 million. Four districts -- including Westlands, San Luis, Panoche and Del Puerto -- had a combined total of $85 million in underpayments, Walker said.

He said, "Some of the nation's richest farmers get this subsidy at a time when electricity has become less reliable and more expensive."

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