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Wetlands Delta Smelt Lawsuit Contested

Dan Bacher: Decades of over-irrigation of toxic, saline soils in the district has also contaminated much of the shallow and deep groundwater in the district.

Conservation Groups Contest Basis of Westlands Delta Smelt Lawsuit

Environmental and fishing groups on Friday, June 24, issued a press release publicly questioning the basis of Pacific Legal Foundation's lawsuit challenging the legal basis of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the Delta smelt.

The lawsuit is one of many recent lawsuits based on Westland Water District’s claims of huge reductions in irrigated acreage on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley as a result of ESA restrictions on Delta pumping.

The groups issued the release in response to a press release by the Pacific Legal Foundation's appeal of the Delta smelt case to the Supreme Court (

“With heavy snow and rain, Mother Nature’s drought is over. But Uncle Sam’s regulatory drought continues,” said PLF staff attorney Brandon Middleton. “The farm economy has rebounded from the low point during the natural drought."

"But even now, federal regulations for the Delta smelt keep San Joaquin Valley farmers and communities from getting their full, contracted allocation of water," said Middletown. "On behalf of our clients — three farms in the San Joaquin Valley — we’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and stop the regulatory drought by striking down the unconstitutional Delta smelt regulations.” 

The foundation claimed that in the area served by the Westlands Water District alone, "an estimated 200,000 acres of farmland were fallowed because of irrigation cutbacks, and steep job losses occurred up and down the San Joaquin Valley, with unemployment reaching 40 percent in some communities."

The fishing and environmental groups countered the PLF release by citing the report by California Water Research Associates showing that 100,000 acres of land, which Westlands claimed was fallowed as a result of Delta pumping restrictions, "was actually retired because of toxic salt and boron contamination of soils adversely affecting agricultural production."

“Westlands Water District has been making extremely misleading claims for years about the causes of fallowed land in the district,” said Carolee Krieger, Executive Director of the California Water Impact Network.“The fact is, the soils in the district have become waterlogged and contaminated with salt and boron. As a result, the use of the land for agriculture is severely impaired and it continues to get worse.”

Krieger said west side of the San Joaquin Valley is former alkali desert that has been reclaimed only by dumping tons of gypsum on the ground to bind naturally occurring salts, and leaching the soil with subsidized imported Delta water.

The leaching and irrigation of water-intensive crops such as cotton and almonds in Westlands Water District,has generated extensive subsurface build up of saline water that has accumulated in the eastern part of the district, impairing over 200,000 acres so far and immediately threatens another 100,000 acres, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

"For the last decade, Westlands has been buying land from owners who are ready to give up trying to farm the waterlogged, saline soils," according to Krieger. "The district is reallocating the water to less impaired land within the district, and in the last year, has been transferring the surplus to Metropolitan Water District."

Krieger added that much of the land and groundwater within Westlands also contains high concentrations of selenium, a trace mineral that can be extremely toxic to wildlife and to humans. "One of the hot spots of selenium toxicity is just south of Mendota," she said. "The US government purchased 37,000 acres and attached covenants forbidding irrigation of the land with ground or surface water, before giving the lands to Westlands Water District to manage."

As a result, Westlands Water District now owns about 100,000 acres of salty poisoned land, which has been retired from irrigated production. The largest extent of impaired land is south of Mendota.

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“The simple fact is that restrictions on pumping Delta water have nothing to do with the fallowing of Westlands' 100,000 acres of retired land,” said Bill Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “Blaming the farmers’ problems on the Delta smelt and the Endangered Species Act is a red herring masking the Pacific Legal Foundation’s philosophical objections to the concept of protecting endangered species."

Jennings noted, "The Delta smelt is simply the canary in the coal mine representing the collapse of the biological tapestry in the Bay-Delta estuary.The land is fallowed because of the legacy of greed and over-irrigation of marginal lands.”

Decades of over-irrigation of toxic, saline soils in the district has also contaminated much of the shallow and deep groundwater in the district. There are large areas that have no groundwater fit for drinking or irrigation. Kettleman City, at the southern end of Westlands, is trying to find money for a water treatment system to remove arsenic in the city’s wells, another legacy of over-irrigation of west side soils.

Westlands has implied that more water would bring the land around Mendota back into production, but over a million acre feet of water in 2011 has not helped. Unemployment has actually increased since 2009.

“Westlands needs to admit that the retired land has been poisoned, not taken out of production because of Endangered Species Act restrictions on Delta pumping.” said Krieger.

“They have created a huge toxic, salty mess on the west side, and that's a big reason why the land is fallowed and West side towns are suffering,' said Barbara Vlamis of AquAlliance in Chico. "They don’t need more water from the Sacramento Valley, they need less water.Sean Hannity was hoodwinked.”

Massive exports of water from the state and federal pumping facilities on the South Delta, combined with decreasing water quality, have spurred the collapse of Central Valley Chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, American shad, Sacramento splittail and other Delta species in recent years. The collapse of Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon in 2008 and 2009 caused the loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the California economy.

The Delta smelt, a 2 to 3 inch native fish that has declined to record low population levels since 2005, is an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the Bay-Delta ecosytem.

For more information, contact: Carolee Krieger, C-WIN 805-969-0824, Bill Jennings, CSPA 209-464-5067, Barbara Vlamis, AquAlliance 530-519-7468.

Westlands' reported fallowed acreage:

2009: 156,000 acres retired land (est.): 64%
2010: 123,000 acres retired land (est.): 81%
2011: 125,000 acres (est.) retired land (est.): 80%
Source: Westlands 2009 & 2010 crop reports, 2011 Annual Water Use and Supply

Unemployment in west side towns:

dan bacher

Mendota April 2011: 42.7% April 2009 38.2%
Firebaugh: April 2011: 28.8% April 2009: 25.1%
Huron: April 2011: 35.7% April 2009: 31.5%
Tranquility: April 2011 19.5% April 2009: 16.8%
Source: California Employment Development Department

Dan Bacher