6/24/05 water articles from Reclamation, Managing
Water in the West
target cost of ecolaws, but not water subsidies
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of the House Committee on Resources chaired by
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, is scheduled to
hold hearings today on how environmental
regulations effect water supplies.
Some environmentalists say the real story is the
multibillion-dollar subsidy taxpayers give to
farmers in the form of federal water projects.
The Subcommittee on Water and Power hearing,
"Environmental Regulations and Water Supply
Reliability," was called by committee chair
George Radanovich, R-Fresno. There are seven
scheduled witnesses, representing agribusiness,
water experts and environmental groups.
"Everyone wants to protect endangered species,
but we need to improve the way the Endangered
Species Act is being carried out," Radanovich
said in a press release. "Throughout the West,
communities are threatened daily with severe
water problems and it's our responsibility to
help find solutions."
According to the press release, the federal
Bureau of Reclamation spentnearly $84 million to
comply with the Endangered Species Act in 2003.
This represents nearly 10 percent of its annual
Brian Kennedy, press secretary at the House
Resources Committee, cited several examples of
why many believe the cost of the Endangered
Species Act enforcement has been extreme, such
as lost access to water and power on the
Colorado, Columbia, Klamath and Rio Grande
Kennedy said the Bonneville Power
Administration, a federal energy agency based in
Portland, lost $1.7 billion when it had to open
spillways for fish during the 2001 West Coast
When the administration couldn't run its dam
turbines, it had to buy power at elevated prices
from elsewhere in order to serve its customers.
"Water is very important out West, as is the
Bureau of Reclamation getting abundant and
reliable water to end users," Kennedy said.
However, according to Barry Nelson, senior
policy analyst with the Natural Resources
Defense Council, the numbers citd by the
resources committee are dwarfed by the amount
taxpayers have given away to farmers in the form
of water projects.
One of the prime examples, he said, was
California's own Central Valley Project.
This Sacramento River basin water project was
established by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in
1935. Under the terms of the original deal,
farmers had 50 years to pay off a $1 billion
interest-free loan on the federal money used to
build the project.
The interest alone amounts to a
multibillion-dollar subsidy to farmers, Nelson
said, some who are wealthy and receive other
subsidies. After nearly 60 years, farmers have
paid off only 10 percent of the loan, he added.
"We tell welfare recipients to get off welfare
in a couple of years," Nelson said. "I think
half a century is long enough for Central Valley
farmers to get off welfare, too."
Furthermore, Nelson said, the Central Valley
Project operates at a huge loss to taxpayers
every year. Farmers use 80 percent of
Califrnia's water, he said, but the Central
Valley Project sells water for a fraction of the
Typically, these farmers pay $30 for each acre
foot, the amount of water that would cover one
acre one foot deep, and many pay nothing at all.
By contrast, the market rate for an acre foot of
agricultural water is $120 to $150.
Residential customers, Nelson said, pay about
$1,000 per acre-foot. An acre-foot is 329,250
gallons, the amount of water need to cover an
acre of land in a foot of water.
Much of this water is used to support
California's major crops of cotton, rice, and
the beef and dairy industries. While Nelson said
that he agrees that some water subsidies are
reasonable, the market is currently glutted with
many of these goods.
Meanwhile, he said, decades of dam building have
decimated another important industry,
California's salmon fisheries, putting thousands
out of work.
Nelson said that the annual salmon run in the
San Joaquin River has gone from hundred of
thousands of fish each year to zero because of
"Think about the transportation problems
California would have if 80 percent of our
population paid a nickel a gallon for gas,"
Nelson said. "That's the situation we have with
Court: Farmers can't sue for water rights
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receiving subsidized water from Uncle Sam cannot
sue for damages when the government decides some
of that water needs to stay in the rivers and
streams, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled on
Two dozen Central Valley farmers wanted $32
million as compensation from the federal
government for water they were due under a
federal contract. Instead, the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation diverted the water into the
Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect
two threatened fish species.
"This is a dramatic setback for a legal strategy
that's really been growing in the last several
years," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy
analyst at the Natural Resources Defense
"This is an attempt to force government to pay
for environmental requirements. ... The hope is
that by bankrupting those agencies, they can
stop environmental protection from happening,"
At issue is a 1993 decision by the Bureau of
Reclamationto halve the amount of water
allocated to the giant Westlands Water District
in the San Joaquin Valley, from 900,000
acre-feet promised in a 1963 contract to
450,000. An acre-foot of water is 326,000
gallons, enough for a family of four for one
The cut was needed, the agency said, to protect
shields U.S. from farmers' lawsuit
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Modesto Bee, The
growers wanted $32 million for undelivered water
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday
shielded the federal government from a
multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by dissident
Westlands Water District farmers.
In a unanimous ruling whose broader consequences
may unfold slowly, the court ruled that
sovereign immunity protects the United States
from Francis Orff and the other unhappy
Essentially, it's up to the federal government
to decide when it can be sued.
"We conclude that, in enacting (irrigation law),
Congress did not consent to (Orff's) suit,"
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.
Orff and about two dozen other Westlands farmers
and farming partnerships want the federal
government to pay them upward of $32 million for
undelivered irrigation water. The Westlands
district had filed a similar lawsuit, but
dropped the case in 1995.
Orff and his allies, who farm only a small
fraction of the Rhode Island-sizd Westlands
district, have since fought on by themselves.
The court's ruling Thursday means these
individual farmers lack the same authority the
district had to sue the government.
"It doesn't surprise me, actually," Westlands
attorney Stuart Somach said. "This works well
Ruling's implications wide
Thomas' 2,100-word opinion was short, fairly
technical and entirely free of the passion found
in some higher-profile court cases.
Its implications, though, may resonate well
beyond the Westlands district, which had joined
the U.S. government in trying to fend off the
"I think it's going to apply to a lot of
districts and a lot of farmers," said William
Smiland, the Los Angeles-based attorney for Orff.
Somach noted that the decision will "vindicate
the ability of a water district's board of
directors to make decisions for the district."
Other applications, though, are not yet
apparent. The decision gives Westlands what it
wantedin this specific case. But the reasoning,
Somach suggested, might also preclude some water
districts from filing their own lawsuits in the
Environmentalists, who had been closely
following the case and filing
friend-of-the-court briefs, voiced relief.
"Had the Westlands farmers been permitted to
sue, it would have opened the floodgates of
litigation throughout the American West," said
Lloyd Carter, director of the environmental
group Revive the San Joaquin River.
Carter, whose group seeks restoration of the
river's fishery flows, specifically warned of
lawsuits that might have occurred "every time
the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation attempted to
repair some of the environmental damage it has
done to Western rivers or endangered species by
cutting back on irrigation deliveries."
Water diversion hurt farmers
The original lawsuits followed federal efforts
to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and
other damaged waterways. Under a 1992 law, more
than 1million acrefeet of water was steered away
from farms for environmental purposes.
The diversions helped protect the Sacramento
winter-run Chinook salmon and other species, but
they hurt the farmers, who were only receiving
about half of the water promised by their
The farmers contended that as "intended
third-party beneficiaries" of the original 1963
water contracts, they had the same right to sue
as the water district. The district's right to
sue was spelled out in the 1982 Reclamation
Thomas, though, reasoned that the 1982 law only
permitted plaintiffs to add the United States to
lawsuits involving other parties; for instance,
a lawsuit filed by one water district against
another, or a lawsuit filed by individual
farmers against their own water district.
"It does not permit a plaintiff to sue the
United States alone," Thomas wrote.
Smiland said it's possible Orff and the other
farmers might consider taking another route now,
by seeking compensatio through the U.S. Court of
Federal Claims. During oral arguments in
February, Supreme Court justices brought up that
possibility several times.