Judge scuttles approval for Westlands’ permanent water contract

A California judge has declined to validate a contract granting permanent access to federally controlled water for the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier, a move that means the U.S. government is not bound by terms of the deal, the Associated Press reported.

The contract between Westlands Water District and the U.S. Department of Interior was the first of a slate of California water users to switch from temporary, renewable water service agreements to permanent repayment contracts.

The contract conversion was a key provision of the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act that enabled the crafting of new, more robust environmental rules governing water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern portion of California.

In order for Federal officials to be bound to the terms of the permanent repayment contract, it must be validated by a state court.

Thursday, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Tyler D. Tharpe declined to validate the contract, citing the district’s attempt to validate an incomplete version previously.

Environmental lobbies argued that Westlands received preferential treatment due to the placement of David Bernhardt, a former counsel to Westlands, as Secretary of the Interior.

The district has strenuously denied the charge.

“The suggestion that the permanent nature of the proposed Westlands repayment contract makes it an ‘unusually good deal’ is simply false,” the district wrote in a 2020 informational flyer.

The contract conversion process has since been utilized by agencies including California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, one vestige of the Newsom administration suing the Federal government over the Trump-era environmental rules governing water pumping operations in the Delta.

Staff reports from The San Joaquin Valley Sun staff.