The federal government would give a huge block of water as well as partial control of a large reservoir to powerful Central Valley agricultural interests under a possible agreement aimed at resolving a long-standing farm-drainage problem.
The complicated proposal amounts to an unprecedented restructuring of the federal Central Valley Project, the country’s largest water-supply operation.
The project’s biggest customer, Westlands Water District, would drop out of the system, and along with neighboring irrigators would assume the rights to a million acre-feet of water -- more than the city of Los Angeles consumes in a year.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the project, would also forgive a debt of nearly half a billion dollars the irrigators owe for construction of the mammoth project.
In return, the federal government would no longer be under obligation to fix a vexing San Joaquin Valley drainage problem that could cost U.S. taxpayers several billion dollars to solve.
“This goes beyond anything we’ve ever considered in its scope,” Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeffrey McCracken said.
The proposal, which would require congressional approval, is under discussion and has not been endorsed by the reclamation bureau, which Thursday briefed members of Congress and Interior officials.
In divorcing Westlands and the project, the plan would end a contentious relationship between the two and give Westlands, the most powerful irrigation district in the state, even more clout.
“It gives us an opportunity to be in greater control of our own destiny,” said Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham.
The reclamation bureau would transfer its state water rights permit for a million acre-feet, roughly a sixth of its entire statewide deliveries, to a joint powers authority formed by Westlands and other irrigators in the San Luis unit of the project, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
The amount is what irrigators have typically gotten from the project, but 400,000 acre-feet less than what their federal contracts call for -- effectively freeing up that quantity for other uses in the federal system during good water years.
The federal government would also transfer ownership of the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos to the joint authority and the state, which uses about half of the reservoir to store supplies for the State Water Project.
The implications of the proposal were not entirely clear Thursday. McCracken and Birmingham both said that because the water Westlands was taking over would continue to be pumped by federal facilities from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the deliveries would still be subject to endangered species and other environmental restrictions.
Spokesmen for the state and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which gets water from the San Luis Reservoir, said they would evaluate the proposal but were not prepared to comment.
Longtime critics of the bureau and Westlands were not so reserved.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said the plan amounted to the privatization of a large part of the West’s biggest water project and would leave up to the irrigators how to solve a serious environmental problem.
“Do we really want to give these water users this kind of control over so much water?” Miller said in a statement. “Is this new plan really in the best interest of the taxpayers? Given all of the possible ramifications, it will be important for Congress to go through this proposal with a fine-toothed comb.”