Water supply is clearly the most important long-term issue affecting California’s future. It’s also the most politically complicated.
Incremental changes in California water policy typically take years, if not decades, to work their way through seemingly infinite legal, regulatory and political processes at federal, state and local levels – and the conflicts often are over the processes themselves.
Often, too, seeming breakthroughs on specific conflicts crumble into dust once they are revealed to the hundreds of “stakeholders.”
Given that history, one should view somewhat skeptically last week’s announcement of a bipartisan, state-federal agreement on one key piece of the water puzzle.
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Two top Democratic officials, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown, along with Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican and GOP floor leader of the House, support an extension of the two-year-old Water Infrastructure for Improvements for the Nation (WIN) Act, aimed at resolving a conflict over water flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Brown’s State Water Resources Control Board has been demanding that farmers along the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries use less water so that more can flow through the Delta to enhance habitat for fish and other species.
Using the pending board order as a political club, Brown wants the farmers to voluntarily improve habitat restoration so that the diversions into the Delta could be eased.
However, the Donald Trump administration simultaneously has been pushing to give more water to farmers and, inferentially, send less through the Delta, offsetting federal court orders that have reduced agricultural supplies.
The WIN Act extension would, at least in theory, make restoration easier and make farmers’ water deliveries more predictable. It also would provide more than $670 million in federal funds for water storage projects that farmers and other water interests have been demanding to increase supply.
While Feinstein, Brown and McCarthy are supporting the deal, it still must pass muster with the rest of Congress and, most importantly, get Trump’s blessing.
Neither is guaranteed – if for no other reason than it’s being attached to a broader spending bill that’s hung up over Trump’s demand for money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Environmental groups dislike the proposal, seeing it as a backdoor way of reducing Delta flows and/or a way of expediting one of Brown’s pet projects, twin tunnels that would divert Sacramento River water under the Delta, rather than through it.
Brown told reporters a couple of weeks ago that he wants a comprehensive water deal before leaving office – implicitly one that would clear away potentially toxic opposition to the $20 billion tunnel project that would be the last big piece of the State Water Plan his father, Pat Brown, launched nearly 60 years ago.
The Feinstein-Brown-McCarthy agreement would be an important component of such a deal, but time is quickly running out in Washington with McCarthy’s Republicans about to cede House control to the Democrats, and in Sacramento, where Brown has just a few weeks remaining in his governorship.
It’s a game of political chicken. Implicitly, Brown is telling farmers to make a deal with him rather than take their chances on his successor, Gavin Newsom, who might not be as willing, and on a water board that’s poised, with strong support from environmental groups, to shift a lot of their water from fields into the Delta.