[Marxism] Water profiteering

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 3 08:33:45 MST 2006


NY Times, March 3, 2006
For Thirsty Farmers, Old Friends at Interior Dept.
By TIMOTHY EGAN

FRESNO, Calif. — For more than 10 years, Jason Peltier was a paid advocate 
for the irrigation-dependent farmers here in the Central Valley of 
California, several hundred landowners who each year consume more water 
than the city of Los Angeles does.

Now Mr. Peltier works for the Bush administration, and he helps oversee the 
awarding of new water contracts for the people he used to represent as head 
of the Central Valley Project Water Users Association. The federal 
contracts, tying up water for a quarter-century or more from the world's 
largest irrigation project, have the potential to bring the farmers a huge 
windfall if they turn around and sell the water on the open market.

At the same time Mr. Peltier — as the deputy assistant secretary for water 
and science at the Interior Department — is involved with reviewing a 
request by the water association to stop paying up to $11.5 million a year 
into an environmental restoration fund, as required by a 1992 law.

Mr. Peltier's role influencing decisions that could have a direct financial 
impact on his former employer is part of a pattern at the Interior 
Department over the last five years, critics say, with a revolving door 
between managers on the government side, and the people who buy or lease 
federal water, land or forests on the other side.

At the Interior Department, at least six high political positions have been 
occupied by people associated with businesses or trade associations tied to 
public lands or resources. One of those appointees, J. Steven Griles, a 
deputy secretary, continued to receive $284,000 a year from his old 
lobbying firm while working for the government. Mr. Griles stepped down 
last year, saying he had not done anything to violate ethics rules at the 
department.

Mr. Peltier, in an interview, said that when he first came to the Bush 
administration in 2001, he recused himself from some decisions involving 
the landowners he used to represent, but he said he was granted an 
exemption because of his expertise in California water issues.

"I was given dispensation early on because of my knowledge of these 
issues," he said.

He added, "I have not had the strict bar of separation on certain issues, 
but I've been very mindful of the appearance of a conflict and operated 
accordingly."

Interior Department officials said Mr. Peltier, who is the chief policy 
adviser on California water issues, had cleared his activities with the 
ethics office.

Mark Limbaugh, the assistant secretary for water and science and Mr. 
Peltier's immediate supervisor, said in a telephone interview that Mr. 
Peltier's role was only advisory on water issues that involve his former 
employer.

"He provides background, insight and advice," Mr. Limbaugh said. "He is not 
in a position to make the ultimate decisions."

But others say the arrangement is inappropriate, and they point to contract 
terms that could give farmers in the Central Valley, including the ones Mr. 
Peltier once represented, far more federally subsidized water under their 
new contracts than they could ever use. And because the water will be 
provided at a fraction of the price it would cost on the open market, the 
farmers could act as brokers to resell unneeded water at a huge markup, 
making them some of the most powerful players in Western water politics for 
well into the middle part of this century.

Some of the farmers will pay about $40 per acre foot of water (roughly 
326,000 gallons) under the new contracts for water that could fetch up to 
$200 an acre foot on the open market in dry years, according to groups that 
monitor the Central Valley Project.

"They're basically locking up the last available water in California for 50 
years, which they could then sell at big profit made on the back of 
taxpayers," said Tom Stokely, a water policy and planning official with 
Trinity County, in Northern California, which has been at odds with water 
users in the Central Valley for decades.

The biggest pool of water at stake under Mr. Peltier's watch involves the 
Westlands Water District, a group of San Joaquin Valley landowners and the 
largest and most prominent member of the trade association that Mr. Peltier 
used to represent.

The new contract for Westlands, stuffed with arcane and obscure language, 
would give the landowners water from the government-financed Central Valley 
Project for 25 years, with an option for another 25 years.

Asked about his role in the Westlands contract negotiations, Mr. Peltier 
said, "I've tried to steer away from the nuts and bolts" of the contract 
because of his prior job.

He also said, "There are a lot of layers of management beneath me — plenty 
of horsepower in there" to represent the government side.

But critics in Congress like Representative George Miller, a Democrat from 
California who has long advocated loosening agriculture's grip on federal 
water supplies, said Mr. Peltier should have nothing to do with the 
contract. Mr. Miller also said far too much water was being offered to the 
Westlands farmers, violating the spirit of the 1992 environmental 
restoration law that tried to give competing interests in California equal 
access to water.

"This is a clear conflict of interest and has been since his appointment," 
Mr. Miller said.

Bush administration officials, including Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, 
have said that top political positions in the Interior Department have 
always been filled by people who are more responsive to the party in power. 
They note that President Bill Clinton filled his Interior Department with 
former leaders of environmental groups that have long lobbied the government.

But the difference, critics say, is that some of the current appointees 
came from groups that stand to benefit financially from the decisions made 
at the Interior Department about how much businesses will have to pay for 
public water, grazing land, timber and minerals.

The appointees, both former and current, include William G. Myers III, who 
was the department's solicitor from 2001 through 2003 after working as a 
lawyer for ranching interests which rely on public grazing land; Bennett W. 
Raley, who was assistant secretary for water and science from 2001 to 2004 
after working at a law firm whose clients had clashed with the federal 
government over the use of public water; Rebecca W. Watson, assistant 
secretary for land and minerals management, who is a lawyer who represented 
mining, logging, oil and gas interests; and Kit Kimball, director of 
external and intragovernmental affairs, who was a lobbyist on behalf of 
mining, oil and gas companies doing business on public lands.

"It is one thing to have someone with a certain ideological bent fill a 
political position, but it's another to have somebody who is so identified 
with a special interest that they cannot be expected to make fair 
decisions," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for 
Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that monitors how money and politics 
intersect.

Interior Department officials say the Westlands and other contracts do not 
show favor to one group or the other and do not noticeably depart from the 
approach taken by the Clinton administration in dividing the water supplies.

John Leshy, the department's solicitor general under Mr. Clinton, disputed 
that, saying the Clinton administration had tried harder to balance water 
deliveries between environmental needs and agriculture, as required by the 
1992 law.

In the case of the Westlands contract, the Bush administration officials 
said they had recently started to negotiate provisions so that excess water 
will not be hoarded to be sold by the farmers.

The terms under consideration would let Westlands receive up to 1.15 
million acre-feet of water a year, about the same as it has been entitled 
to in the past — equivalent to the amount needed to supply roughly 2.5 
million urban families for a year. But because at least 90,000 acres and 
maybe as much as 200,000 acres of the 580,000 acres of farmland used by 
Westlands may no longer be suited to growing because of its heavy mineral 
content, critics question why the district should continue to get such a 
large amount of water.

A Westlands official, Thaddeus Bettner, the deputy general manager, said 
the district had no intention of selling any of the water at a markup. 
"Everyone talks about this reselling, but it's not even discussed by us," 
Mr. Bettner said. "We have a real need for the water."

He said Mr. Peltier had not helped Westlands beyond his steering the 
contract to an orderly conclusion. He said he expected the new contract to 
be signed in the spring. The old one expires next year.

Separately, the water users' association wrote a letter in December to the 
Interior Department requesting that the financial burdens on them from the 
1992 environmental restoration law be revisited. It is first time the 
federal government has considered a review of the payments, and 
environmentalists say there is no evidence that significant improvements 
have been made to justify reducing payments.

Mr. Peltier said, "I would not anticipate that we're going to end up 
reducing the amount, but we're willing to talk about it."

At the time the law passed, Mr. Peltier, then serving as a manager of the 
trade association, indicated that the irrigators might resist complying.

"We'll do anything and everything to keep from being harmed," he told The 
San Francisco Chronicle then. "If that means obstructing implementation, so 
be it."

Mr. Peltier says his views have changed now that he is on the other side, 
representing government.

"I was younger and brasher then," he said.

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