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6/24/05 water articles from Reclamation, Managing Water in the West
 
Hearings target cost of ecolaws, but not water subsidies Text 06/24/2005 Lodi News-Sentinel  
Supreme Court: Farmers can't sue for water rights Text 06/24/2005 Argus, The  
Court shields U.S. from farmers' lawsuit Text 06/24/2005 Modesto Bee, The  
Balancing act at Friant Dam Text 06/24/2005 Fresno Bee, The
Hearings target cost of ecolaws, but not water subsidies Return to Top
Maclachlan, Malcolm
Lodi News-Sentinel
 
A subcommittee 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 budget.

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 rivers.

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 power crisis.

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 market rate.

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 dams.

"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 water."

 
Supreme Court: Farmers can't sue for water rights Return to Top
Fischer, Douglas
Argus, The
 
Farmers 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 Thursday.
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 Council.




"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," he said.




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 year.

The cut was needed, the agency said, to protect threatened winter-run

 
Court shields U.S. from farmers' lawsuit Return to Top
Doyle, Michael
Modesto Bee, The
 
Westlands 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 Westlands farmers.

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 for us."

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 Orff lawsuit.

"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 future.

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 federal contracts.

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 Reform Act.

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.

 

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