Seems there's no satisfying environmental interests when it comes to dividing up California's water for irrigation, urban uses, or wetlands habitat.

A recent example is the proposed retirement, at a cost of about $500 million to the U.S. Government, by the Westlands Water District of as much as 200,000 acres of land unsuited to farming because of drainage problems.

The district, 70 miles long and 15 miles wide, is made up of 600,000 acres in the western Fresno and Kings counties.

Clay strata in the subject portion prevent irrigation water from seeping downward and lead to accumulation of harmful mineral deposits. The problem is long-standing, and government-promised provisions for drainage of the effluent remain to be seen.

Along with retirement of the land, Westlands proposes to reduce allotment of Central Valley Project water from 1.15 million acre-feet to about 805,000 acre-feet.

Environmental groups criticized the proposal, claiming American taxpayers should not be expected to foot the bill for solution of the drainage problem.

Responds to claims

In a recent newsletter, Michael Wade, executive director of the Farm Water Coalition in Sacramento, takes issue. Wade says, under the plan, the retired farmland would become a wildlife preserve, and he questions how that could be considered a bailout.

Another environmentalist view is that reduction of water supplies was bound to occur because the CVP cannot deliver full amounts to agricultural contractors south of the Delta.

Wade replies that water supplies from both the State Water Project and the CVP have been steadily reduced since 1990 to comply with environmental requirements of the Endangered Species Act and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

He also notes the environmental critics did not object when the CalFed program called for massive land retirements.

More recently, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt redirected thousands of acre-feet of water away from the Central Valley to habitat benefits.

In short, Wade complains, “water was taken from projects developed for agriculture and urban use and given to the environment.

“That, in my book, is not balance. Instead, we should have been investing in new infrastructure to meet California's growing resource needs rather than wait until a crisis to act.”

And he adds, it's not as if there were no other water projects friendly to the environment. One is the removal of barriers to migratory fish in the Sacramento River and a more efficient bypass for irrigation water in the Western Canal Water District in Butte County.

Another, the Diamond Valley Reservoir, operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, seeks to meet needs of both urban and environmental uses.

Land retirement, as Wade observes, is not the complete solution for the 1.5 million acres of drainage-impacted land on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. Retirement of all of it would severely impact the agriculturally centered economy of the region.

Wade concludes his newsletter with an appeal for local industry and state and federal governments to continue to work for a sensible and effective solution.

“The environmental community cannot have it both ways. Either they support land retirement programs that are designed to solve specific problems with the support of local communities or they don't.

“If the public is asked to support programs that ultimately benefit the environment, then those programs should have the full support of environmental leaders.”

We can only agree with Wade that the environmental sector must realize that California is entering a new era where major water developments can only be accomplished through cooperation of a variety of stakeholders. And that needs environmentalists willing to find commonality with urban and agricultural interests.

E-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com