Drought War: GOP and Dems in fight over CA water policy

Drought War: GOP and Dems in fight over CA water policy

Call it the Drought War. Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is fighting with three Republican U.S. representatives over water policy in this parched state.

On Jan. 17, Minority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare and Rep. David Valadao of Hanford sent a joint letter on the drought to Feinstein. The letter inquired about her solutions to the currently emerging California historic drought. 

The letter did not ask for a suspension of the Endangered Species Act.

However, the three congressmen last week joined House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in visiting drought stricken farmers in Bakersfield.  They called for a federal waiver of H.R. 146, The San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act of 2009, which Feinstein had sponsored.

H.R. 146 implements a 2006 federal court order to permit the diversion of water from farmers into the San Joaquin River to reestablish salmon runs to the ocean. According to this summary:

Plaintiffs asserted that the Bureau’s operation of the dam violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the California Fish and Game Code (section 5937), which requires dam operators to release sufficient water to maintain “good fish populations.” 

Feinstein replied to the three congressmen with a Jan. 22 letter that detailed her involvement in water issues and legislation in recent years. But she also wrote, “As long as conditions remain dry, there is very little gain to be made by relaxing ESA (Endangered Species Act) requirements.”

Also at issue is California Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent California Drought Declaration in which he suspended the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act for any emergency drought relief measures.  Brown’s action raises the necessity of also obtaining a waiver of the federal Endangered Species Act before Brown’s suspension could be acted upon.  But once again, that is not what the three Congressmen requested in their letter.

Feinstein pleaded for GOP leaders to “move beyond partisan divisions, and work together to provide relief to those Californians suffering from this drought.”

Dems and GOP speaking to their constituencies, not each other

But to do that both the Democrats and the GOP are going to have to get beyond speaking only to their respective constituencies, and instead start speaking to each other.

Feinstein’s letter addresses the fears of her party’s powerful environmental lobby that the Endangered Species Act would be abrogated.

She documents her efforts to try to provide legislation authorizing the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to undertake water banking, water transfers and water storage studies. And she says she “championed” the CALFED-Bay-Delta Restoration Program. She says she received “very little support from House Republicans to pass these provisions.”

The congressmen’s letter refers to the GOP’s powerful farm lobby’s concerns about the unintended consequences of Feinstein’s H.R. 146 allowing 800,000 acre-feet of water in the San Joaquin River to flow to the ocean in 2012 for fish restoration.  The foreseeable consequence of that action is that there now is no water stored for what appears to be an historical drought.

Both letters don’t directly address solutions to the issues raised by farmers themselves.  However, the GOP’s call for a federal waiver of H.R. 146 is closer to the mark, albeit a congressional waiver cannot abrogate a court order. But it possibly could suspend the policy of releasing water to flow to the sea in an historic drought.

Addressing the concerns of farmers

The concern of Tom Nassif, head of Western Growers, is not about suspending the California Environmental Quality Act or the Endangered Species Act.  Nassif’s concern is that Feinstein’s H.R. 146 has taken $180 million from farmers in higher water rates to fund fish restoration of the San Joaquin River — only to end up with farmers subsidizing the death of the very farm water economy on which they depend.

The drought has cut federal farm water allocations by 95 percent.  But the water from prior wet years that could have been stored or banked has been squandered along with the $180 million in higher water rates that won’t restore salmon runs in a drought anyway.

Discussion too late

Neither side in the emerging drought war is talking about such possible measures as:

* A water bill rebate to farmers;

* Use of unspent state water bond monies for drought alleviation actions;

* How a water transfer of federal water into the State Water Project could be accomplished expeditiously without any environmental clearances;

* How federal water could be rented by farmers to withstand the drought with the payment of rent deferred.

A discussion of any such measures is already too late, however, as pointed out by Jeff Simonetti, a water policy analyst for Stratecon Inc. at the HydroWonk Blog.

The bigger problem seems to have been addressed by California State Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, during an interview at Boehner’s rally to fight drought.  There may not be enough water in either the federal or state water systems to weather a drought of this kind.

Northern California not prepared for drought

Fuller said farmers and Southern California counties have water banks and contingency plans to manage droughts, but Northern California cities don’t.  Water storage hasn’t been needed in recent droughts.

But for the first time in 37 years, Northern California communities are already rationing water. There is no state drought contingency plan for them.

California’s prioritization of environmental water diversions for fish has diverted attention away from basic lifeline planning for droughts.

Related Articles

More food stamp cuts coming

Last week, expansions ended to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the Food Stamp program. Food stamp

Moody’s raises questions about teacher pension funding fix

Soon after the CalSTRS funding fix crafted by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown took effect on July 1, Moody’s

Expert says drought did not cause Napa quake

  Natural disasters predictably bring up speculation about causes. On radio shows, callers have been wondering whether the ongoing drought or