A federal deal that would have given agricultural water contractor Westlands Water District access to Bureau of Reclamation water resources to help reinvigorate farms in the Central Valley was rejected by the Fresno County Superior Court on Wednesday, possibly paving the way for full dismissal.
The deal had been set in motion since 2019, when then Interior Secretary David Bernhardt carved out a deal with Westlands, whom Bernhardt had been a lobbyist for until he was selected to be Deputy Interior Secretary by President Donald Trump in 2017. Opponents, led by several Native Tribes in the Central Valley and Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA), began a campaign to stop the deal, citing a lack of details in the agreement, harm it would do to the environment and tribal lands, as well as being highly suspect due to Bernhardt’s ties with the company.
“The Interior Department needs to look out for the public interest, and not just serve the financial interests of their former lobbying clients,” said Congressman Huffman in 2019.
The contract itself would give Westlands access to 1.15 million acre feet of water for agricultural uses, with the amount likely to be lowered during drought years. The contact would also be made permanent, due to a new law allowing companies and the federal government to do so after decades of operating on short-term contracts lasting a few years as long as they pay the cost of all federal water infrastructure in the area.
An earlier court ruling found that Westlands did not have a complete contract, as it did not include details on how much Westlands would be paying the government, not providing public notice, and leaving the contract open to changes down the road.
However, supporters of the agreement, such as farmers and farm workers, fueled by a major drought in California that has been shuttering farms all year, have said that private companies are doing what the government is not: giving them water.
“We understand that Westlands would make a profit,” said Sarah Smith, a local farm organizer in the Central Valley, to the Globe on Thursday. “But we are dying, and they are trying to get water to us when the state is flushing water out to sea. They literally care more about fish than people at this point.”
A private water deal in the air in Fresno County
The court case, delayed in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic backlog in the courts system, has led to continuous friction on both sides. Opponents have continued to say that the deal put private agricultural projects over environmental and tribal needs, with Westlands fighting back that they have been transparent and that they aren’t receiving special treatment.
However, on Wednesday, Fresno County Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe ruled that the deal was still incomplete, with the court, again, refusing to ok the contract.
While the Bureau of Reclamation declined to comment on an active case, other supporters and opponents spoke on the contract refusal.
“This was an effort to basically steal public resources and put them into private pockets,” said native tribe Attorney Stephan Volker on Wednesday.
Others continued to point out the need for water and blamed Judge Tharpe for making life worse for farmers in the process.
“It’s amazing that they just don’t care,” added Smith. “They see our farms imploding around them, but they’re still refusing to validate these contracts that would save us. We’re running out of places to turn to.”
Another hearing on the contract is due to be heard in court on December 2nd, which could potentially dismiss the entire case.
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