On April 29, Shasta Reservoir, the primary source of water supplies for the Central Valley Project, was full. And yet farms and communities south of the Delta are being allocated only 40 percent of their water supply. And that's not expected to change this year, no matter how much water is sitting in Shasta. How can this be?
Before 1992, the Bureau of Reclamation was permitted to operate its south Delta CVP export pumping plant at capacity 12 months per year, enabling Reclamation to move enough water through that pumping plant to meet all demands for CVP water south of the Delta. But since 1992, more and more regulatory restrictions have been imposed on the operations of that pumping plant, so that today Reclamation is permitted to operate the plant at capacity only four months per year.
The human costs of these regulatory restrictions and the economic disruption they have caused have gotten a great deal of attention in Congress. On Feb. 29, the House of Representatives passed HR 1837, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, and on April 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that directed Reclamation to develop a plan to increase irrigation water deliveries for CVP contractors.
Although both bills seek to provide relief to the San Joaquin Valley, the two bills represent fundamentally different approaches to the problem. HR 1837 would provide clear congressional direction on how to operate the CVP. The Senate appropriations bill, on the other hand, seeks to squeeze more water out of the existing regulatory framework that has tied Reclamation's hands.
The authors of these two bills, Reps. Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and Jeff Denham and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, want desperately to address the human crisis created by chronic water supply shortages. The authors of the House bill and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle have worked tirelessly to bring the plight of the San Joaquin Valley to public attention. And no member of Congress has done more than Sen. Feinstein over the last decade to improve annual water supplies for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.
Feinstein's efforts in 2010, for example, helped to persuade the Department of the Interior to devise the means to increase to 45 percent the allocation of water that had been disastrously reduced to 10 percent in 2009. Her actions in that year alone restored thousands of on-farm jobs for people who otherwise would have been forced to stand in food lines in Mendota, San Joaquin and other communities on the west side of the Valley.
Westlands Water District supports both HR 1837 and Sen. Feinstein's language in the Senate Appropriations bill. HR 1837 contains numerous provisions that Westlands would not have proposed if it had drafted the legislation, but it advances meaningful reforms to federal law that will restore balance to meeting competing demands for water.
Feinstein's language could result in dramatic improvements if implemented by officials genuinely interested in increasing water supplies. But the success of Feinstein's approach depends on the good will of these officials. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt attempted a nearly identical approach in June 2000. It failed because of the disinterest of the officials who were responsible for implementing the program.
The ultimate question is, are we going to sustain irrigated agriculture on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley? If yes, changes to federal law will be required to stem the economic decline in the Valley until long-term efforts to implement a Bay Delta Conservation Plan and to build conveyance facilities are completed. Defenders of the status quo insist the law works perfectly and that any legislation to reform the law is merely an attempt by some greedy corporation or other to exploit natural resources. That is the argument that has been raised against HR 1837 by advocates who allege falsely that it is Westlands' attempt to steal water from the fish.
Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley do not want to steal anyone's water. They merely want to regain access to the water in a full Shasta Reservoir that they are paying for.