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Obama signs California’s massive water bill, but Trump will determine its future

President Barack Obama during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Tampa, Fla.
President Barack Obama during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. AP

President Barack Obama on Friday quietly signed and bequeathed to President-elect Donald Trump a massive infrastructure bill designed to control floods, fund dams and deliver more water to farmers in California's Central Valley.

While attempting to mollify critics’ concerns over potential harm to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Obama signed the $12 billion bill in a distinctly low-key act. The still-controversial California provisions were wrapped inside a package stuffed with politically popular projects, ranging from Sacramento-area levees to clean-water aid for beleaguered Flint, Michigan.

“It authorizes vital water projects across the country to restore watersheds, improve waterways and flood control, and improve drinking water infrastructure,” Obama stated, adding that “help for Flint is a priority for this administration.”

Dubbed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, the bill passed both House and Senate by veto-proof margins following years of maneuvering and debate. Obama’s signature was never really in doubt, though administration officials had previously resisted some of the specific California provisions.

These provisions, which include more pumping of water through the Delta for farmers, will now be implemented by an incoming Trump administration that appears agribusiness-friendly. Trump’s Interior Department transition team has included a lawyer who until Nov. 18 was a registered lobbyist for the Westlands Water District, a supporter of the much-lobbied bill.

Westlands reported spending more than $3 million on federal lobbying since 2011, the year Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, introduced the first version of a California water bill inspired by the state’s drought. Myriad other California water districts and associations likewise weighed in on the bill over the past five years, helping shape its often-technical language.

“Facing (another) year of drought, the communities and farms of the San Joaquin Valley are truly desperate for water,” said Jason Phillips, chief executive officer of the Friant Water Authority.

The big infrastructure bill signed by Obama authorizes funding for flood control projects, including some $780 million for West Sacramento work and $880 million for work along the American and Sacramento rivers. It also authorizes the study of Merced County streams as well as $415 million for assorted Lake Tahoe restoration efforts.

A separate study is authorized for the Cache Creek Settling Basin in Yolo County, while the Army Corps of Engineers is directed to give “priority” to feasibility studies for flood risk management along the Lower San Joaquin River and for the Sacramento River

“The bill includes a host of programs that benefit California,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield also used the larger water projects bill, over the vehement opposition of lame-duck Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, as a vehicle for inclusion of nearly 100 pages of additional California water provisions.

As senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer helped write the larger water resources bill with its local flood-control measures. But instead of exulting in Obama’s signature on what might have been her crowning legislative achievement, Boxer ended up voting against the 277-page bill because of what she termed its “dangerous” rider. She and environmentalists fear the shifting of water will hurt wildlife, habitat and the commercial salmon industry.

The California package opposed by Boxer offers $335 million for proposed California water storage projects that are not explicitly named, but that are intended to include Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. The funding is only a fraction of the total amount needed for the multi-billion-dollar projects.

Another pot of money would support recycling, reuse or desalination projects in California. The bill streamlines the ability of the Trump administration to proceed with new dam construction, while supporters estimate annual water deliveries to farms could increase by between 250,000 and 400,000 acre-feet, a relatively small percentage.

“This new law will help our communities receive more water this wet season and will help move forward storage projects that will define California’s bright future,” McCarthy said.

As part of a bill-signing statement Friday, Obama declared “it is essential” that a cooperative relationship between state and federal officials “not be undermined by anyone who seeks to override that balance by misstating or incorrectly reading” the law. In particular, Obama said in the non-binding statement that the bill requires “continued application and implementation of the Endangered Species Act.”

Trump administration officials will nonetheless have leeway in interpreting the bill, such as a directive to “make every reasonable effort” to deliver 100 percent of contracted water supplies to Sacramento Valley districts.

The Montana Republican tapped to head the Interior Department that will implement important sections of the bill, Rep. Ryan Zinke, already has some familiarity with the Central Valley, as the recipient of several thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the California Westside Farmers Political Action Committee and individual Valley farmers, and as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Other candidates sympathetic to Western farmers are in the running for lower-level positions with direct responsibilities for putting the new California provisions into practice, such as the Interior Department solicitor and the assistant secretary for water and science.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10