Kurtis Alexander Dec. 11, 2018 Updated: Dec. 11, 2018 9:25 a.m.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is joining forces with House Republicans to try to extend a controversial law that provides more water for Central Valley farms, but with a sweetener for the environment: help with protecting California’s rivers and fish.
The proposed extension of the WIIN Act, or Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, would keep millions of federal dollars flowing for new dams and reservoirs across the West. It would also continue to allow more water to be moved from wet Northern California to the drier south.
In addition, the proposal builds on the original 2016 law, which was criticized by conservation groups as a water grab for agriculture, by offering federal help with funding restoration of the fragile Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta.
The push to renew the law comes as California water regulators are trying to improve conditions in the Delta, a vital passageway for salmon and a hub of state water supplies. On Wednesday, the State Water Resources Control Board is scheduled to vote on limiting the water taken by cities and farms to ensure more water remains for the Delta and its declining wildlife.
Gov. Jerry Brown recently threw his support behind the extension of the WIIN Act, hoping that the promised restoration funds will help grease passage of the water board’s Bay Delta Plan.
That plan calls for limiting draws on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries to 60 percent of what flows naturally in the waterways during peak runoff season. As it stands, as much as 80 percent of the flows are pumped out. The water board’s studies show that this level of consumption is unsustainable for chinook salmon and other wildlife.
Many environmentalists, fishermen and California Democrats contend that the WINN Act remains wrong-headed and does more harm than good to the state’s river system.
“This would crank up the pumping, and the more those pumps move water, the more salmon die,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, who believes the WIIN Act is simply a way to prioritize farms above fish.
Democrat Feinstein and Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy are seeking to extend the five-year law for an additional seven years through a rider in the federal budget deal. The federal spending package is currently tied up with such competing proposals as President Trump’s border wall, but it’s expected to be finalized by Dec. 21, when funding for the government is set to expire.
“California can’t wait until the next major drought to fix our aging water infrastructure, and improving and extending the WIIN Act is an important step,” Feinstein said in an email.
As proposed, the WIIN Act would provide $670 million for new water storage projects, including the possible expansion of Shasta Dam, as well as $100 million for water recycling programs and $60 million for desalination plants.
It would also grant state and federal water regulators the continued flexibility to pump additional water through the Delta to farms in the San Joaquin Valley and cities in Southern California.
Furthermore, the proposal would give the Interior Department new power to impose fees on water agencies that use federal water and funnel the proceeds to improving habitat along California rivers.
The Brown administration has been skeptical of new dams and additional pumping, but maintains that funding for river restoration makes the WIIN Act worthwhile.
Critics have seized on language in the WINN Act that allows Delta pumping to go beyond what’s permitted under the biological opinions of the Endangered Species Act. The legislation also directs maximum pumping unless water regulators can prove their actions are harming fish.
Additionally, critics note that the WINN Act was meant to be an emergency measure to boost water supplies during the California drought, not a long-term law. They’ve also denounced the brokering of the renewal during closed-door budget negotiations.
Sen. Kamala Harris has come out against the extension because of concern that the law doesn’t balance water supplies fairly.
“We must invest in sustainable water projects that protect critical ecosystems while also supporting our important agricultural economies across the state,” she wrote on Twitter. “Extending the controversial and detrimental policies of the WIIN Act is not the way to do this.”