Water & Drought

Obama signs water bill; what does it mean for the Delta?

Visitors take a closer look at overflowing Aptos Creek as it flows into the sea Friday after a storm system pushed through. A $12 billion water bill could mean more water moving south out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Visitors take a closer look at overflowing Aptos Creek as it flows into the sea Friday after a storm system pushed through. A $12 billion water bill could mean more water moving south out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Associated Press

President Barack Obama on Friday signed a massive infrastructure bill designed to control floods, fund dams and deliver more water to farmers in California’s drought-ravaged Central Valley.

Obama signed the $12 billion bill in a distinctly low-key act. Controversial provisions that critics fear could harm fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were wrapped inside a package stuffed with politically popular projects, ranging from Sacramento-area levees to clean-water aid for beleaguered Flint, Mich.

“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 Westlands Water District, an agricultural district based in Fresno County and a supporter of the bill.

The bill becomes effective immediately, but it could take a few weeks before it affects how much water is pumped south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Thanks to recent rainfall, the massive pumping stations near Tracy are already operating at full capacity, said spokesman Shane Hunt of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project. Hunt said there are no environmental restrictions hindering pumping currently.

If conditions in the Delta don’t change, the differences in how the pumps operate would start to show up in a few weeks. That’s when government biologists say endangered fish species, such as the Delta smelt, are believed to be swimming near the giant pumps. At that point, environmental curbs have traditionally kicked in, and the Delta pumps were throttled back.

The law signed by Obama could change that. It says the pumps should be managed “to maximize water supplies for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project,” and it requires agencies essentially to push the limits on how much water can be sent south.

Environmentalists say they fear increased pumping in the Delta will bring further ruin to the dwindling fish populations that are protected by the Endangered Species Act. A recent study by scientists at the Bay Institute, an environmental group, warned that San Francisco Bay and its tributaries already are facing ecosystem collapse because so little fresh water is flowing out to sea from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems.

“I think we will find out very soon what it means,” said Doug Obegi✔, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Obegi said he was somewhat heartened by Obama’s statement demanding “continued application and implementation of the Endangered Species Act,” but he’s still worried about the health of the fish

Farm groups said they’re hoping changes materialize quickly, particularly with lots of water sloshing in and around the Delta this winter.

“This legislation is intended to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, to capture these storm events, these rain events ... and move water when you have it,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager at Westlands Water District.

In previous winters, he said, farmers were frustrated to see pumping curtailed during winter months, allowing water to flow out to the ocean. Now they believe they’ll get a bigger cut of the water supply.

The state and federal water projects serve most of California’s major farm districts as well as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Ultimately, the agencies remain at the mercy of the weather. If the rains stop, there will be considerably less water flowing south.

“A lot of it will still depend on (weather) conditions,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager at Metropolitan.

Aside from the controversial provisions over Delta pumping, the bill authorizes $880 million for flood-control work along the American and Sacramento rivers, $780 million for improved flood safety in West Sacramento and $415 million for environmental assistance for Lake Tahoe

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10