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Hope for water progress in California may be evaporating

Talks aimed at forging a compromise in California’s intractable water wars — in process for more than a decade — hit a potentially serious snag as the nation’s largest irrigation district announced it would no longer contribute to the cost of studies.

Westlands Water District, which delivers water from taxpayer-built reservoirs mainly to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness, said in a scathing missive to the U.S. Department of the Interior that it would no longer fund the Bay Delta Conservation Plan unless it received an Endangered Species Act loophole, and accused the Obama administration of “misinformed political interference,” according to Kelly Zito in the San Francisco Chronicle.

A spokesman for Interior called Westland’s allegations ‘baseless’ and a ‘disservice to all.’

The Bay Delta plan is the latest iteration of a tortuously slow process aimed at balancing the needs of farmers, cities and the environment in divvying up California’s scarce water. In its letter, Westlands cites conversations with one time Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt in 1994 in which Babbitt discussed guaranteed water deliveries in exchange for forgoing the “rights” to about a million acre feet of water.

The guarantee would enable Westlands to jump to the front of the line for water deliveries, ahead of cities and the environment. During dry years, the pain is usually shared, though lawsuits by various interest groups have resulted in some interest groups gaining the upper hand.

Environmental groups, for the most part, oppose Westlands, saying it enables the planting of water intensive crops such as cotton and nut trees on extremely arid land. Advocates for Westlands claim enviros put the esoteric needs of inconsequential fish ahead of those of people.

If there ever was a place for honest federal and state political leadership to broker an agreement, California’s water scarcity is a prime candidate. However, that seems ever more remote. According to Mike Taugher of the Contra Costa Times, this latest wrinkle may be more to do with posturing as political players change places in Washington.  He also infers that Westland’s upper echelons have been populated by Bush administration apparatchiks concerned that the science has been slanted to support environmentalists’ views about the dangers of diverting too much water.  Meanwhile, the eau de vie of politics — campaign contributions — continues to flood the fields from which legislation will sprout.

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