California judge rejects water deal for major farm supplier

California-Water Deal Rejected

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California judge has rejected a federal contract granting permanent access to U.S. government-controlled water for the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier, saying it lacked details on costs and appropriate public notice.

Environmentalists had blasted the contract with Westlands Water District as a sweetheart arrangement designed to benefit corporate agricultural interests over environmental needs and taxpayers. It was crafted during the Trump administration under then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for Westlands, a public entity based in Fresno that supplies water to private farmers.

“This was an effort to basically steal public resources and put them into private pockets,” said Stephan Volker, an attorney for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, the North Coast Rivers Alliance and several other groups.

Westlands is evaluating the court’s ruling and may appeal if the case is dismissed, spokesperson Shelley Cartwright said. The water district rejects claims it received special treatment, with Cartwright saying it has “acted transparently” and followed the steps required by law.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe declined Wednesday to validate the contract between Westlands and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, a requirement for it to be legal. Tharpe scheduled another hearing on Dec. 2 to potentially dismiss the case, which would send Westlands back to the drawing board.

The water Westlands doles out to its agricultural customers comes from the Central Valley Project, a federally run network of dams, tunnels and canals that brings water from California’s wetter north to the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley and heavily populated Southern California.

The case raises questions about how much water major districts that serve corporate interests should be entitled to at the expense of tribes and environmental interests that rely on certain water flows, said Patricia Schifferle of Pacific Advocates, a natural resources consulting firm.

“The argument really is: Are we going to allocate that much water to Westlands Water District without conditions?” she said.

The contract gives Westlands access to 1.15 million acre-feet of water for irrigation and other purposes, though it doesn't guarantee all of that water in drier years like the one California is now experiencing. Since 1988, Westlands has only received its full allocation from the Central Valley Project six times, according to the district's website.

An acre foot is 325,851 gallons (about 1.23 million liters). An average household