Sen. Steinberg advances drought bill

Yesterday state Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, released an outline of a drought reduction bill.

Steinberg does not want to be outdone by Republican congressmen grabbing all the media attention for being the first to float an anti-drought bill in California.  Last week, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, floated H.R. 3964, the San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, in the Republican-controlled House.

Nunes gained media attention by getting House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to visit Bakersfield to help announce a bill that would provide relief to farmers that rely on the federal Central Valley Water Project.

Since 1990, 58 percent of water in California’s Central Valley has been diverted from farmers to the environment (see Slide No. 5 here).

Steinberg’s bill is not targeted at farmers, but at the Democratic Party constituencies of farm labor communities, rural housing that does not comply with the land subdivision laws and the policing of farmers’ use of their own groundwater.

In an average rainfall year, California commits 48 percent of its available system water for environmental use, 41 percent for farming and 11 percent for municipal and industrial use.

A drought of relief in Steinberg’s drought bill 

An outline of Senate Bill 731, as released by Steinberg’s office:

  • $40 million in California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund would be diverted to the California Department of Water Resources for unidentified water conservation and energy-saving programs for farms, businesses and homes.  

The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund is comprised of air pollution taxes collected from electric utilities and large industries under the cap-and-trade program.  Gov. Jerry Brown has tried to reallocate funds from this same budget pot for California’s High-Speed Rail Project.  But even environmental organizations assert that reallocating such funds for other than the reduction of air pollution is not legal.  However, Brown borrowed from Special Funds to patch the state general fund budget deficit and perhaps Steinberg could do the same with cap-and-trade funds.

But it might take winning a lawsuit challenge by environmental organizations to divert these funds to farmers or farm-labor camps.

  • $50 million would be reallocated from the Department of Water Resources for flood control projects that result in enhancing water supply.  Steinberg’s press release emphasized that “shovel ready” flood control projects would be given priority. The Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District already budgeted $23.5 million for 2013 and would require land acquisition and environmental clearances before any project could start. 
  • $4.8 million would be re-appropriated from the state general fund to the Water Resources Control Board to increase the monitoring of groundwater use.  Agricultural aquifers are typically drawn down during droughts and replenished during wet years.  So groundwater monitoring and policing would not alleviate drought as much as perpetuate it.  Enforcing the use of groundwater would only throw more farm workers out of work.  The unemployment rate in the farm area of Mendota already is 34 percent. 
  • $11 million of existing state and federal funds would be diverted for clean drinking water programs to help poor and disadvantaged communities. 

Funding drinking water programs for makeshift residential subdivisions that have no water systems has been a pet agenda in the California Legislature, but would hardly have any impact in drought reduction where it is most needed.

Moreover, funding for water systems for rural home subdivisions in unincorporated areas was already provided under AB21 in 2013.

A $1.3 million federal grant for a wastewater treatment system in the unincorporated area of Lanare in the San Joaquin Valley resulted in low-income residents being unable to pay $54 per month to run the plant that sits dormant and unused.


From 2000 to 2012, California voters approved five water bonds totaling $18.7 billion.  None of this was directly spent on drought alleviation for Central Valley farmers, where the current epicenter of the drought is.  Steinberg’s $105.8 million in reappropriated funding for drought reduction projects would amount to less than 1 percent of the $18.7 billion for water bonds.

Additionally, Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition reports that San Joaquin Valley farmers invested $2 billion in upgraded irrigation systems on more than 1.8 million acres since 2003. Again, Steinberg’s drought bill funding would only be a drop in the bucket of what farmers have already self-funded for water conservation.

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