Judge Backs Deal to Retire California Farms

February 9, 2003

By Dean E. Murphy

The New York Times


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San Francisco, California, February 8 - A federal judge has agreed that the United States Bureau of Reclamation no longer needs to provide drainage for about 34,000 acres of farmland in the Central Valley of California as part of a $139 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by farmers there.

But the settlement, which provides for the largest buyout of farmland in the bureau's history, is raising concerns among California's Congressional delegation and some environmental groups because the Bush administration wants to help pay for it with money from other water programs in the state.

Some opponents also argue that the deal is too generous to the farmers.

"The money that is needed for California is very tight," said Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. "The funds for this settlement should not be taken from projects in California."

The Bush administration agreed in December to settle the 1991 lawsuit by paying $107 million in damages to 19 families who said poor drainage had ruined their farms by allowing huge amounts of salt to build up in the soil. The courts had previously ruled that adequate drainage for the land was the responsibility of the Bureau of Reclamation.

As part of the deal, the local water agency, the Westlands Water District, agreed to pay $32 million to buy the land and remove all but a few thousand acres from production.

On Friday, Westlands wired money into a trust fund to begin paying its share, said Thomas W. Birmingham, the water district's general manager.

The settlement was submitted for review to the federal judge, United States District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno, Calif., who ruled on Thursday that it was "fair, adequate and reasonable." The judge agreed to oversee the deal's enforcement, which includes freeing the reclamation bureau of its drainage obligations and keeping the federal government and Westlands to a three-year payment schedule.

But Judge Wanger said it was not within his jurisdiction to consider how the federal government paid for the deal, though he acknowledged that the federal share remained a thorny issue. The judge said he was not passing judgment on the deal's merits.

"This litigation has a long, torturous and extremely complex history which is coming to an end," the judge wrote. "The decision as to the merits of their settlement and the source of funding to perform it is inherently political and has already generated substantial controversy."

On Friday, two Democratic representatives from California wrote a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations urging its members not to allocate money for the settlement. Under the deal, the federal government must make a payment this year of $34 million. The Bush administration had proposed taking the money from a variety of sources, including water recycling programs and maintenance funds for several water delivery projects in California.

One of the representatives, George Miller, said the settlement could leave the federal government vulnerable to other drainage claims.

Hal Candee, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that had objected to the settlement in filings before Judge Wanger, said the battleground would shift to Washington. "The controversy over this huge federal giveaway to a handful of Westlands farmers is far from over," Mr. Candee said.

Last month, all 55 members of Congress from California, Democrats and Republicans, wrote to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Attorney General John Ashcroft demanding that the settlement be paid for with Justice Department money.

A spokesman for the Interior Department said on Friday that the final decision about financing would be made by Congress.

"They are the people who control our money," said the spokesman, Kip White, "and it is in their court."