Appeals court sides with enviros over Westlands water contract suit. What does it mean for supplies?

An appeal to validate Westlands Water District’s 2020 permanent repayment contract was rejected. Despite that, things are looking up for the water district.

A California appellate court has ruled against Westlands Water District in the district’s attempts to validate a contract that would grant permanent access to federally controlled water. 

The appellate court affirmed a ruling from the Fresno County Superior Court decision to not validate the contract because Westlands did not provide the financial information as part of the contract. 


The backstory: Westlands Water District receives water that it distributes to its agricultural partners from the Central Valley Project, which is operated by the federal government through the Bureau of Reclamation. 

  • Under the bipartisan 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, water contractors are able to convert their often short-term interim contracts into permanent ones. Water contractors are required to pay back the federal government for the cost of infrastructure as part of the deal. Those permanent contracts also need to be validated by a state court in order to confirm that the federal government is bound by the terms of the contract. 
  • Westlands filed a validation complaint in the Fresno County Superior Court in 2019 for its contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. The permanent contract was executed in February 2020 by Westlands and the Bureau of Reclamation. 
  • The Fresno County Superior Court denied Westland’s validation motion in part because the contract was only a proposed one, not one that had actually been executed before the district sought validation. The court also ruled that the proposed contract lacked essential terms, such as the actual financial terms. 
  • Two years ago, Westlands filed a renewed motion for validation judgment, which was once again denied by the court. 
  • Westlands already satisfied its Central Valley Project capital obligations in 2020 when it repaid its remaining share of $210 million to the federal government. 

The big picture: In the appeal, Westlands argued that the proposed contract that it initially submitted for validation was rendered “in existence” at the time. 

  • Yet the appellate court agreed with the Fresno County Superior Court in its ruling, finding that the missing repayment terms in the contract keep it from being validated. 
  • The appellate court ruled that there was no indication that Westlands was willing to agree to pay any amount since the district’s financial obligations were not included in the contract. 

Why it matters: Westlands and the Bureau of Reclamation have been operating under the converted contract terms for three years despite the fact the court yet to validated it. 

  • It appears clear there is little practical effect on Westlands or its water supplies via the Central Valley Project from Monday’s ruling, as the appellate court judges wrote themselves.

    What they’re saying: Westlands General Manager Allison Febbo affirmed that the contract with the Bureau of Reclamation is still legal after the appellate court’s ruling. 

    • “Westlands continues to assess the ruling, but it is important to recognize that neither the Court of Appeal’s ruling nor the lower court’s judgment renders the contract invalid,” Febbo said. 
    • John Buse, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity – one of the respondents in the complaint, celebrated the appellate court’s ruling. 
    • “Once again the courts have ruled that these schemes to lock in permanent deliveries of California’s most precious resource are dubious and illegal,” Buse said in a statement. “Massive water diversions only benefit corporate agriculture and they put our drinking water and Bay-Delta wildlife at grave risk. The courts are right to stand up to corporate interests.”
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