Water & Drought

The drought is over. Why are Republicans in Congress fighting for more water for farmers?

California’s rise from the drought as told through satellite images

Not so long ago, California was in the middle of a deep drought but in June its snow water equivalent rose to a heaping 170 percent of normal. NASA shows in its latest video that satellites were capturing that change.
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Not so long ago, California was in the middle of a deep drought but in June its snow water equivalent rose to a heaping 170 percent of normal. NASA shows in its latest video that satellites were capturing that change.

The drought may be over and Central Valley farmers are getting more water than they have in years, but that hasn’t stopped congressional Republicans from resurrecting a bill that would strip environmental protections for fish so more water can be funneled to agriculture.

The bill is likely to meet the same fate as others before it, despite farmers having a new ally in the White House and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. After passing the House of Representatives last week, the bill faces near-certain death in the Senate, where California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris still have the power to kill it. President Donald Trump, who vowed during a Fresno campaign stop last year to “open up the water” for farmers at the expense of fish, is likely to never see the bill cross his desk.

Nonetheless, the legislation by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, offers a window into the unrelenting mindset of California’s agricultural lobby as it seeks to secure water for well-funded farming groups.

Some version of Valadao’s bill has been introduced off and on since 2011 without success. And, last year, with Feinstein’s support, farmers succeeded in pushing through a controversial bill easing some of the environmental restrictions on pumping water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for delivery to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. Former President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

Farmers and their allies in Congress say that legislative victory, followed by a near-record-breaking rainy season, still weren’t enough. Although irrigation canals and reservoirs are swollen this year, growers argue that for far too long, a disproportionate share of California’s water has been allowed to wash out to the Pacific Ocean in what they argue is a failed bid to protect fish.

They want a regulatory overhaul that tips the scales back in their favor.

“This year is kind of an anomaly,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, which serves much of Fresno and Kings counties with supplies from the federal government’s Central Valley Project. “You just can’t keep your eye off the ball.”

Amaral’s farmers are getting 100 percent allocation this year from the federal government’s Central Valley Project, which delivers water to much of the Central Valley. But they got no CVP water in 2014 and 2015 and just a 5 percent allocation last year.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we were suffering through zeroes, consecutive zeroes, and that’s still fresh in people’s minds,” Amaral said.

Valley farm groups aren’t shy about pressing their case in Washington. Westlands, for instance, spent a combined $1.3 million lobbying Congress and various federal agencies on water issues in 2015 and 2016, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Environmentalists say the Valadao bill would further devastate a crippled Central Valley river ecosystem, which has seen the endangered Delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon nearly go extinct during the drought after decades in decline. Biologists attribute the fisheries’ collapse in large part to too much Central Valley river water being dammed, pumped and shunted into irrigation canals instead of being allowed to flow on a more natural course into the ocean.

Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bill is “pretty awful,” akin to the “eighth ring of hell” for California’s fish and wildlife.

Valadao’s HR 23, which passed the House earlier this month on a mostly party-line vote, overrides a quarter-century of state and federal protections for endangered fish, while fast-tracking reviews for several proposed controversial dams. A section of the bill is dedicated to killing a program that seeks to bring more flows to the San Joaquin River, where miles of river often dry up because of agricultural diversions and dams.

In many respects, the Valadao bill is an attempt to turn back the clock and substitute older, less restrictive environmental regulations on the Delta.

It would require that the Central Valley Project and State Water Project be operated under the rules set by the Bay-Delta Accord, a 1994 environmental agreement. That would countermand more stringent rules, imposed by the two federal agencies in charge of protecting salmon, smelt and other endangered species in the Delta, that have been in place since 2009. The bill also strips Central Valley wildlife refuges of critical water deliveries in dry years, according to conservation groups; and it shunts more water from the imperiled Klamath River watershed to Central Valley farmland.

The bill also would significantly rewrite the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which redirects 800,000 acre-feet of water each year to fish and the environment. For example, current law says the federal government has the option of reducing the amount of water allocated to fish if conditions are dry and farming districts south of the Delta aren’t getting their full allotment from the Central Valley Project. Valadao’s bill would make that a requirement, forcing the feds to cut the water available to fish by 25 percent if farmers are getting less than 75 percent of their regulation allocation.

“It addresses a lot of the frustrations that have occurred over the last 20 years or so,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “I know a lot of it sounds like it’s being stripped out, the environmental protection, but the things that are in place now aren’t working so we need to try something else.”

Perhaps the most controversial provision would tie California officials’ hands. State officials would be forbidden from imposing regulations “in order to conserve, enhance, recover or otherwise protect any species that is affected by the Central Valley Project or California State Water Project,” the bill says.

The bill “would preempt existing California environmental laws and regulations, giving the Trump administration greater control over water management in our state,” Feinstein and Harris said in a joint statement last week.

They added that the bill “prevents California from using new scientific data to manage our water supply by reverting us back to outdated limits set more than two decades ago.”

One of the bill’s strongest proponents, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, acknowledged HR 23 has almost no chance of making it through the Senate to Trump’s desk because of Feinstein and Harris’ opposition.

In an interview last week with conservative Fresno talk radio host Ray Appleton, Nunes said that to pass the Senate, Republicans would need support from eight Democrats – and that’s not going to happen.

“Right now, the odds are basically zero because ... the Democrats will not go against the home-state senators,” Nunes said. “So if Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Harris oppose the bill, no Democrats are going to vote for us right now.”

Obegi and other environmentalists, however, aren’t resting easy. Obegi said he’s worried that portions of Valadao’s bill may be inserted into “must-pass” legislation that could reach Trump’s desk.

And Nunes, a dairy farmer, says his friends in agriculture shouldn’t give up on trying to squeeze more water out of Congress. He urged farmers listening to the Fresno radio show to keep the pressure on.

“We have to get these folks that have all these high-paid lobbyists and consultants ... over to the Senate and say, ‘OK, you oppose the House bill? What’s your solution?’ 

As of June 1, 2017, the central Sierra snowpack had about ten times more water than it did on the same day in 2016. In several recent years, no water was recorded at all on June 1. This series of satellite images shows the snow accumulation from s

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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