Conference Committee Rejects Westlands Drainage Settlement Rider

posted in: Spotlight | 0

Big Ag will keep trying to add rider to bills

In a victory for salmon and the Delta, a Conference Committee rejected Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to add H.R. 1769, Representative David Valadao’s rider approving the Westlands Water District settlement on toxic irrigation drainage, to the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act).

A Conference Committee is a temporary, ad hoc panel composed of House and Senate conferees that is formed for the purpose of reconciling differences in legislation that has passed both chambers. Conference committees are usually convened to resolve bicameral differences on major and controversial legislation, as in the case of this bill.

The San Luis Drainage Resolution Act rider was not included in the final bill, thanks to political pressure on Senate and House Democrats by the Hoopa Valley Tribe, fishing groups and environmental organizations.

However, Westlands and San Joaquin Valley Representatives said they intend to keep adding the rider to legislation in the weeks ahead until they have passed the bill, according to Restore the Delta. Westlands officials intend to pass the controversial legislation before the court-mandated deadline of Jan. 15, 2018.

“We are looking for any vehicle possible to get the drainage settlement enacted this year,” Deputy General Manager Johnny Amaral told E&E News.

“We’re looking at different legislative vehicles to move the settlement agreement forward,” Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a supporter of the deal, told E&E News. “This may not happen in the next week or two, but I am hopeful we can find some vehicle.”

The settlement resulted from a $1 billion lawsuit filed by attorney David Bernhardt and others with the federal U.S. Court of Federal Claims in 2012 during the Obama administration. Bernhardt was appointed by President Donald Trump as Deputy Secretary of Interior earlier this year– and fishing and environmental groups and Tribes opposed his confirmation because of his major conflicts of interest.

The bill would facilitate a controversial litigation settlement agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands Water District. It would allow the federal government to walk away from its responsibility to drain agricultural lands in California’s Central Valley of toxic salts and selenium without any safeguards that ensure drain water would be managed safely, according to Restore the Delta.

On November 3, the Soluri Meserve Law Corporation sent a letter on behalf of Restore the Delta and Local Agencies of the North Delta (LAND) to Senator John McCain, expressing opposition to H.R. 1769, the San Luis Drainage Resolution Act.

Restore the Delta and LAND assert that H.R. 1769 is a “massive giveaway of taxpayer money, undermines California’s effort to responsibly manage its scarce water resources, could imperil sensitive fish and wildlife, and threatens water quality in a major California river.”

In addition, Restore the Delta and LAND warned Senator McCain that H.R. 1769 “includes a litany of gifts for Westlands, with no commensurate benefit for the public. Instead, the bill promises fiscal irresponsibility and peril for fish, waterfowl, and the California environment in general.”

Hoopa Valley Tribe strongly opposes settlement agreement

The Hoopa Valley Tribe also said it strongly opposes the San Luis Drainage Resolution Act. Ryan Jackson, Tribal Chairman, said he was alarmed to learn on November November 1 that “a clandestine effort is underway to include it in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).”

“We urge you to reject its inclusion in the NDAA.  We assume that the purported nexus of H.R. 1769 to the NDAA is section 6(c) of the bill which provides for a water service contract for the Leemore Naval Air Station, so there is nothing about H.R. 1769 proceeding through the regular order that will impair national defense,” he said.

“To advance H.R. 1769 outside regular order in the House (the bill has not been introduced in the Senate) is particularly egregious.  H.R. 1769 is not a germane to the Armed Services Committee; upon introduction, it was referred only to the Natural Resources Committee. Moreover, CBO reported that H.R. 1769 has PayGo impacts of $309 million over the 2017-2027 period,” he said.

In addition to its adverse fiscal impacts, Chairman Jackson said this bill represents a “grave risk to the integrity of the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s rights and interests under existing federal reclamation law and the federal trust responsibility to the Hupa people.”

“In its present form, H.R. 1769 puts at risk property rights to water established by federal reclamation and state water laws more than a half-century ago for the Hoopa Valley Tribe and California’s economically depressed North Coast communities. The Hoopa Valley of the Trinity River has been the home of the Hupa people and the center of our culture and religion since time immemorial,” he explained.

“In its current form, H.R. 1769 leaves unresolved excessive diversion of Trinity water to the Central Valley by the Bureau of Reclamation, in violation of congressional limits established in the 1950’s.  Those limits are intended to ensure that water needed by the Trinity Basin communities and Indian reservations would not be taken from the Trinity River Basin to the Central Valley.

He added that Department of Interior officials “have knowingly and willfully disregarded the rights of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and California’s North Coast communities in negotiating the San Luis Unit settlement.”

“We request that Congress disapprove H.R. 1769 in its present form and instead be guided by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s admonition the ‘great nations, like great men, should keep their word,’” Jackson concluded.

Action Alert: Stop Westlands from cramming through settlement bill 

Want to stop the Westlands bail out legislation from passing? Please call your Senators and House Representatives and notify them of this problematic process. Let them that know that by trying to cram through the drainage settlement into any and every bill in Congress, Westlands Water District is misusing Congress and the legislative process for their own gain.

In addition, remind them that approving the Westlands settlement deal is “essentially a bailout of the largest irrigators in California at taxpayer expense,” according to RTD.

* Get the contact information for your House Representative.

* Senator Dianne Feinstein – (202) 224-3841, (310) 914-7300, (415) 393-0707, (559) 485-7430. Tweet to Senator Feinstein.

* U.S. Senator Kamala Harris – (202) 224-3553, (213) 894-5000, (415) 355-9041, (559) 497-5109. Tweet to Senator Harris.

The introduction of the bill comes in the wake of six House Democrats’ request that the GAO, the federal watchdog agency that conducts investigations and audits on behalf of Congress, issue a legal opinion about a Bureau of Reclamation’s funding scheme. The penalty for this type of misuse of public money can include removal from office.

Led by Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the Natural Resources Committee’s Ranking Member, the Representatives called on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to open a new investigation into the misuse of taxpayer funds by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation.

This would follow last month’s revelations that tens of millions of dollars were secretly spent by the federal agency to subsidize private interests and help develop plans for Governor Jerry Brown’s massive Delta Tunnels project.

In its September audit, the Interior Department’s Inspector General found that the Bureau of Reclamation improperly subsidized the planning process for the California WaterFix project.  The audit identified at least $84 million in taypayer funds spent without disclosure to Congress as required by law, and kept hidden from other water users, stakeholders, and the public.

“According to the Inspector General, at least $50 million of this total should have been paid by the local water agencies that sought to benefit from the massive infrastructure project, such as the powerful Westlands Water District. Instead, those costs were secretly reassigned by the Bureau of Reclamation so that taxpayers would pay most of the water districts’ share,” according to the Representatives in a joint statement.