GOP push to shift state water policy away from conservation
By Carolyn Lochhead
July 19, 2017 Updated: July 19, 2017 6:00am
WASHINGTON — With a friend in the White House and their party in control of both chambers of Congress, House Republicans have embarked on their most ambitious effort yet to change the way water flows in California.
Legislation that the House sent to the Senate last week outlines a bold effort to build big new dams and shift water from fish, birds and other wildlife to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
The legislation would dry up long stretches of the state’s second-longest river, the San Joaquin, and end efforts to restore its obliterated salmon runs. It would downgrade the water rights of the wildlife refuges that make up the last patches of California’s interior wetlands.
The bill would speed reviews of five big dam projects in the state, long stalled because of their enormous cost and low water yields. It would drain more water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, override the Endangered Species Act and shift California’s control over its water to the federal government by preempting the state’s authority to protect fish.
“It’s a controversial bill for certain groups, but here in the valley it’s not controversial,” said Ryan Jacobsen, a grape farmer south of Fresno and executive director for the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “This is the bill we need.”
Jacobsen called Fresno County the epicenter of the state’s recent record drought, which significantly reduced water deliveries to farms and cut many farmers off entirely.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from Hanford (Kings County), and backed by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, is the latest and most ambitious iteration of an effort begun six years ago by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. Until this year’s record rains ended the state’s five-year dry spell, the push was billed as drought legislation. Now it’s called the Gaining Responsibility on Water, or Grow, Act.
“There is no reason — absolutely no reason — we should prioritize potential benefits to fish over real benefits to families,” McCarthy said during the House debate last week.
The bill passed the House on a mostly party-line vote, without public hearings, and drew swift opposition from Gov. Jerry Brown, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, all Democrats. The fishing industry and environmentalists also oppose it.
The biggest stumbling block to past Republican efforts on water diversion was a White House veto threat, but with a Republican now in the White House, that barrier no longer exists. Although Feinstein and Harris could filibuster a stand-alone Senate version, Republicans could work around that by attaching the legislation, whole or in pieces, to any of a slew of unrelated, must-pass bills — from an increase in the federal debt ceiling to appropriations needed to keep the government open.
“This is the most brazen water grab bill we’ve seen since at least the mid-1990s,” said John McManus, head of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a fisheries group.
The bill would prioritize water for farms and cities over protecting wildlife in areas like the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.
“What it boils down to,” he said, “is the backers of this bill, a small number of people in the western San Joaquin Valley, are saying, ‘To heck with it, we’re simply going to manage the Central Valley’s rivers and the delta as nothing more than a canal to move Northern California water to us, and we really don’t care about keeping the ecosystem alive anymore. It’s too much of a bother.’”
Jacobsen of the Farm Bureau said it comes down to keeping farmers in business.
“We’re obviously trying to make our exports more reliable, simply to preserve our livelihoods down here,” he said. “I do not believe this bill will have any detriment whatsoever on the salmon and overall fisheries in the delta. They’ve taken our water over the last decade and have shown no difference when it comes to species revival.”
The legislation would make major changes to the operation of California’s giant plumbing system, which takes water from rivers to provide it to people. Reverting to a more 20th century approach, it would prioritize water for farms and cities by rolling back efforts to compensate for the damage caused to fish and wildlife.
But to do so, the bill would preempt California water law by forbidding the state to exercise its duty under state law to protect the public trust, including the environment. In a letter opposing the bill, Becerra said the bill violates California sovereignty.
The bill would also renew dam-building in California by speeding reviews of projects that have been stalled for years because of their multibillion-dollar price tags and, by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates, limited ability to provide new water. Among the most popular are a project to raise Shasta Dam in Shasta County; build a dam behind a dam on the San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat, north of Fresno; and dam a dry valley near Colusa to capture Sacramento River water in a project called Sites Reservoir.
The dam section largely mimics a bill sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), that passed the House last month, and puts the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which builds and operates dams, in charge of environmental permitting, overriding the role now played by fish and wildlife agencies.
The legislation would also increase pumping from the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, reverting to pumping limits of more than two decades ago that led to severe fish declines. It would override Endangered Species Act protections for fish.
More than a third of the 134-page bill is devoted to gutting an effort to restore the San Joaquin River. The San Joaquin was dammed in 1942 just north of Fresno. Friant Dam is a keystone of the state’s water system, allowing cities and farms to thrive along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, but it dried up 60 miles of the river, destroying what had been the nation’s largest population of spring-run chinook salmon.
The restoration program, authorized by legislation Feinstein pushed through Congress in 2006 to implement a landmark court settlement, is an effort to work with farmers to re-establish fragments of the river’s original floodplain and recharge aquifers, as well as restore native fish, said Rene Henery, California science director for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group.
The House bill would ban the reintroduction of salmon, and “permanently dry up 60 miles of the river,” said Doug Obegi, a water lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which brought the original lawsuit to restore flows below the dam.
Jacobsen said restoring salmon to the river “has absolutely no chance of working” given the warming climate, and that the objective is “the replacement of the currently proposed salmon fishery with a warm-water fishery.”
Critics said that translates to a trickle of water to keep bass alive but the end of hopes to revive what they call a living river. “From a biological standpoint, there’s absolutely no reason salmon can’t live there” if the river were allowed to be restored, Henery said.
The legislation also weakens water rights for wildlife refuges in the valley, putting them behind farmers in drought years instead of on an equal footing. The state and federal wildlife refuges, along with some privately owned waterfowl tracts for duck hunters, are managed much like farms, contracting water deliveries from the Central Valley Project, California’s vast system of federal dams and canals. The bill would cut in half the money available to refuges to buy water.
San Joaquin Valley refuges are the largest block of remaining wetlands in the West, and about all that’s left of habitat for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and the plants and animals that once lived on the vast seasonal wetlands that covered the valley before the Gold Rush, said Ric Ortega, general manager of the Grasslands Water District in Merced County, the agency that provides water to wildlife refuges in the state.
“If you can think of an animal, it’s out here — everything from river otters to minks,” as well as endangered species such as the Western pond turtle, Ortega said. “All the raptors, songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, it’s a pretty remarkable public trust that we’ve been able to hold onto. But this type of legislation could really issue a death blow.”
Jeff Volberg, director of water law and policy for the California Waterfowl Association, a conservation group, said he has tried to get the attention of lawmakers about the importance of the refuges, but “there just isn’t sympathy in Congress in this particular delegation.”
In December, Feinstein struck a deal with McCarthy to loosen water restrictions on farmers, attaching the measure to a popular water infrastructure bill that passed around midnight on the final day of the last Congress. Feinstein described the deal as a way to forestall bigger demands from valley Republicans.
Jacobsen said last year’s bill was only a first, short-term step.
“This region can no longer sit by and stand there as legislative inaction cripples our industry,” he said, adding that it’s now up to Feinstein and Harris now to “show us your plan.”
Feinstein and Harris said the legislation “doesn’t even come close” to an agriculture-environmental balance and promised to fight it in the Senate.