Boehner crosses Rubicon in CA drought war

In 49 B.C., Julius Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon River in Italy and triggered a civil war. Thereafter, the term “crossing the Rubicon” has meant a limit that, when passed, permits no return and an irrevocable commitment.

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner crosses the California “Rubicon” today on a visit to Kern County with a platoon of California congressmen to set forth a Republican strategy to alleviate the official state drought called by Gov. Jerry Brown — and maybe pick up some more House seats for the GOP.

The contest of this drought war is between Brown and Boehner over who controls the releases of water from the federal Central Valley Project to lessen drought impacts to either fish or farmers.

On Jan. 17, Brown issued a call to create an Interagency Drought Task Force, whereby his team would control the releases of federal water to California. Some California environmentalists see Brown as a foe of the California Environmental Quality Act, while caving in to farmers’ water demands. Others hold out the prospect that Brown will pander to the powerful environmental lobby in California, especially U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Democrats like Brown.

Boehner’s entry into California signifies the Republican-controlled House wants to manage any water releases to assure they will go to farmers. Backing Boehner are Republican Reps. Devin Nunes of Tulare, David Valadao of Hanford and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

Nunes has proposed floating a new bill in the House that would:

  • Allow the pumps run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River to remain running as long as water is available.
  • Re-establish salmon runs, put a stop to the San Joaquin River Restoration Program that would allow river water to flow to the ocean instead of farms. River restoration plans have run into difficulty, not necessarily because of farms having taken water from the fish, but because engineers need to find ways for water to run uphill along former riverbeds.
  • Create a joint House-Senate committee to find long-range solutions to California’s drought problems.

CEQA suspended by Brown

Brown has not let Boehner take all the action in the water wars. Under Paragraph 9 of Brown’s Emergency Drought Declaration issued Jan. 17, the provisions of CEQA have been suspended.

That means any measures taken by the governor to alleviate drought do not have to comply with water quality plans, prepare scientific documentation of environmental impacts or hold public hearings and solicit official comments on any environmental impacts as a result of those measures.

The governor’s action to suspend CEQA has created quite a reaction among California environmentalists. Charged Nick di Croce, facilitator of the California Environmental Water Caucus, “The need for more conservation and greater efficiencies in water management should not result in abrogation of equally needed environmental safeguards benefitting both humans and other species, including fish.”

Federal-state water transfers now possible due to Mendota Intertie

Returning to the federal level of Boehner’s field of play, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has a new potential mechanism to alleviate drought that heretofore has not been available in California history.  The USBR recently completed the Mendota Canal Intertie to the California Aqueduct. The intertie is comprised of two nine-foot diameter subsurface pipes that invisibly connect the federal and state water systems.  Prior to the construction of the intertie, the two systems existed for 45 years about 500 feet apart near the City of Tracy without any way to cross-transfer water.

The bigger question is whether there will be any water available within the federal Central Valley Project to transfer to the State Water Project.  That is because of the severity of the predictable drought and no new water capture reservoirs being built in the state since the 1960s.

Latino Water Coalition lobbies governor

Mario Santoyo of the Latino Water Coalition has lobbied the governor for relief for the population dense and lush Eastside farmers in the Central Valley, not just the parched, unplanted acres of the thinly populated Westside.  The present drought is believed to be so severe that it can’t be isolated to Westside farmers, as in past dry spells.

The political struggle is over environmental water.  If water were released from Millerton Lake to restore salmon runs on the San Joaquin River, the result would be turning off the spigot to Eastside farmers all the way from Fresno to Kern County.  Millerton Lake is an artificial lake near Fresno run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of the Central Valley Project.

Families Protecting the Valley, a Madera-based association of farmers, reacted favorably to the governor declaring a drought emergency. But they are taking a wait-and-see posture if he will override the state’s powerful environmental lobby to provide water for farmers.  Democrats lost the seat for State Senate District 16 in the midterm election of 2013 to Republican Andy Vidak mainly for choosing fish over farmers.

Boehner also is eager to exploit such problems for Democrats to try to pad his Republican majority in the House with a couple of more California representatives.

Environmentalists so far have been losing due to Brown’s suspension of CEQA and now Boehner’s entry into California to capture the San Joaquin River pump houses away from Brown.

To many farmers, winning the drought war means economic survival.  To the victor go the perks of California’s drought war.

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