U.S. Department of Reclamation: “Reclamation does not backstop transfers.”
Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) General Manager Steve Knell likes to say that lawsuits against the district are “all about politics” and “have nothing to do with substance.” Knell is right about the politics and wrong about the substance.
And even when he’s right, Steve Knell is also wrong. When he says OID’s current lawsuits are political, his intention is to dismiss them by impugning the motives of those pursuing the lawsuits. But even a cursory look at correspondence between OID and state and federal agencies confirms the substantial merits of objections to OID’s On-farm Water Conservation Program. The real political motives in OID’s case are not about lawsuits based on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), they’re about shipping water to Westlands Water District.
Westlands is OID’s favorite customer for water. And when it comes to Westlands Water District, politics is king.
Already this year, Westlands has spent over $300,000 on lobbying firms alone. As we all know, politics these days is expensive, and it costs a lot to keep water flowing, “uphill toward money and power.”
Earlier this year, Westlands paid a $125,000 fine for misleading investors about a $77 million dollar bond offering. Westlands General Manager Thomas Birmingham, who was himself fined $50,000, treated the affair as a joke, referring the Westlands’ problems as stemming from, “a little Enron accounting.”
Last year, for $250,000 per year, Westlands hired Congressman Devin Nunes’ former chief of staff to act as “Deputy General Manager for External Affairs.” Given Westlands’ history of “Enron accounting,” the title may or may not be a euphemism for “lobbyist.”
Westlands’ political power is the most likely explanation for OID’s willingness to sell it water a far below market rates. OID has consistently sold Westlands water for around $400 an acre foot during periods when the market price was well over a thousand dollars an acre foot.
As for OID’s current round of lawsuits, here’s what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had to say about OID’s “On-Farm Water Conservation Project and Transfer of Consumptive Use Water”:
“The Department has concerns about the Project-related impacts to the surface water, riparian, wetland, and upland habitats that are adjacent to or within the Project site, as well as the associated impacts to species that utilize these habitat types. In order to comply with State laws described below, Project-related impacts to these special-status biological resources should be evaluated and addressed prior to Project implementation.”
And here’s what the United States Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation had to say about the project:
“In the initial study, OID proposes to pre-transfer water it estimates will be conserved over an entire season. This would require Reclamation to backstop any difference between OID’s estimate and the actual water saved. Reclamation does not backstop transfers. Transfers need to occur in real time….Reclamation would also require a review and approval of the idling study to ensure the adequacy of the study protocol and for accuracy of results.”
In other words, both the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the United States Bureau of Reclamation have stated that OID needs to perform preliminary studies before proceeding with its On-Farm Water Conservation Program. And those preliminary studies are of a kind also required by CEQA, which is the issue raised in the litigation Steve Knell calls “political.”
In essence, two agencies, one state and one federal, have provided more than enough “substance” to show OID has failed to provide the due diligence required to proceed with its On-farm Water Conservation Program.
Yes, it does indeed appear that OID’s lawsuits are driven by politics, but not the kind Steve Knell has alluded to. It also appears there’s more than enough substance behind those lawsuits to make Steve Knell’s attempts to cloud the issue perfectly clear—and that’s why he’s both right and wrong about “politics” and the OID lawsuits.