Legislation to end “man-made drought” in CA

Mar 9, 2012

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act (H.R. 1837) in a bipartisan vote of 246 to 175. The legislation, introduced by Congressman Devin Nunes, R-CA, will end a “manmade drought,” which is the result of water intended for California farm and ranch land irrigation being cut off and diverted to the San Francisco Bay in the name of protecting a three-inch minnow, the Delta smelt.

Joined by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakers field, Nunes introduced the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act last year in response to repeated severe cutbacks in irrigation water deliveries south of the Delta.

The legislation returns federal irrigation contracts to 40 years, rather than the 25-year limit imposed in 1992. It eases water transfers and preempts strict state laws that might impose stricter environmental standards.

“For far too long, radical environmental groups have abused environmental laws and trampled on the private water rights of cattlemen. In this instance, they did it in the name of protecting a three-inch fish. This is absurd. While the water diversions for the fish have produced negligible benefit, some of the most productive agricultural land has been left fallow and thousands of Californians have been put in unemployment lines,” said Joe Guild, chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) federal lands committee and a Public Lands Council (PLC) board member.

“We commend Congressman Nunes for his leadership on this issue and for the 246 bipartisan members of Congress who voted to provide certainty to agricultural producers by demanding commonsense policy. We will continue working to stop extreme environmental groups from obstructing the on-the-ground conservation and sound land and resource management practices cattlemen and women provide each and every day as they work to produce food for a growing global population.”

However, the bill faces an uncertain future, according to those opposed to it. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both oppose the legislation, as does the Brown administration in Sacramento, and the Obama administration has threatened a presidential veto.

“Sen. Boxer and I will do everything we can to make sure it won’t pass,” Feinstein said in an interview last week, “and I don’t believe it will pass.”

Feinstein said she would “look at it and see” if individual provisions might merit separate consideration. Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, one of only 10 House Democrats to vote for the bill, stressed that Feinstein’s participation will be essential for anything to happen.

Though the water is California’s, the controversy crosses borders. In a rare floor speech, House Speaker John Boehner praised the legislation. From the other side, suggesting broader resistance, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon state officials warned about the dangers of pre-empting state laws. But the reassurance fell on deaf ears to some.

“This direct weakening of the deference to state water law is unacceptable,” Wyoming State Engineer Patrick Tyrrell wrote. “It poses a threat to water rights and water administration across the Western United States.”

The negotiation also included language to reassure Sacramento Valley residents, but this language also received criticism.

“This bill places senior water right holders in a safe and secure position,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, the chair of the House water and power subcommittee.

The California water policy, in place for decades, has ensured that more than 27 million water users in the central and southern regions of California have access to water via a complex network of water storage and delivery systems. However, lawsuits brought by environmental radicals claiming that the water pumps were the primary factor in the population decline of the Delta smelt led to water delivery being restricted and, in some instances, completely prevented from being delivered to Central Valley farmers and ranchers. While there are other factors contributing to the population decline of the Delta smelt, the water diversion has resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres of farm and ranch land being left fallow and more than 10,000 farm workers being sent to unemployment lines, according to NCBA.

Dustin Van Liew, NCBA director of federal lands and PLC executive director, said while it is important to fix this issue and restore certainty to California farmers and ranchers, this is further proof that it is time to take a look at reforming the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which has not been updated or improved in nearly 25 years.

“ESA was intended to protect species from the endangerment of extinction. Over the years, however, environmental extremists have exploited that well-intended law as a means to achieve their goal of blocking responsible use of land and resources and ending animal agriculture,” Van Liew said. “The House Committee on Natural Resources has held a hearing on the costly challenges created by ESA. We encourage the committee to look to this issue as further proof of the need for commonsense, feasible and achievable ESA reforms.”

The San Joaquin Valley has been dubbed the “salad bowl of the world” because of its extensive production of fruits and vegetables that help feed the world. But, with another manmade drought looming, the San Joaquin Valley is in danger of becoming a dust bowl unless immediate action is taken to change policies that put the needs of fish above the livelihood of people, NCBA said.

Nunes told reporters that the bill calls for about 100,000 acre-feet of water to flow below the dam annually, less than half of what the current law demands.

Scaling back the river restoration could reduce federal spending by at least $190 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“This is our priority in the House,” Denham said of the overall bill. “The Senate may not agree with us, but we’ll never know unless we have the debate.”

About 200 farm, water and business organizations have endorsed the bill. All of the cities, counties and farm bureaus fully endorsing the bill come from south of the Delta. No city or county north of the Delta endorsed the bill, though some Sacramento Valley water districts did.

But according to NCBA, the House Republicans have created a bipartisan, comprehensive solution that would end future manmade droughts in the area, bring job and water supply certainty to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys in California, and decrease reliance on foreign food sources.

According to NCBA:

• California’s water storage and transportation system designed by federal and state governments includes 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs that provide water to about 22 million people and irrigate about 4 million acres of land throughout the state.

• In May 2007, a federal district court judge ruled that increased amounts of water had to be re-allocated towards protecting the Delta smelt—a three-inch fish on the Endangered Species List.

• Because of this ruling, in 2009 and 2010 more than 300 billion gallons (or 1 million acre-feet) of water were diverted away from farmers in the Central Valley and into the San Francisco Bay—eventually going out into the Pacific Ocean.

• This man-made drought cost thousands of farm workers their jobs, inflicted up to 40 percent unemployment in certain communities, and fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland.

• Unemployment remains at a regional average of 17 percent. With current precipitation at near-record lows, the same regulations will be imposed, pushing unemployment even higher.

• The Pelosi-led Congress did nothing to reverse the plight of the San Joaquin Valley and even obstructed repeated Republican actions to reverse the situation. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act reflects Republican promises to avoid another man-made drought.

• H.R. 1837, The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, is a comprehensive solution that would restore water deliveries that have been cut off due to federal regulations and environmental lawsuits, ensure a reliable water supply for people and fish, secure water rights, and save taxpayer money by ending unnecessary and dubious government projects.

• The bill could create up to 30,000 jobs, generate up to $300 million in expedited federal revenue, and save American taxpayers and ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Highlights of the bill:

• Restores water deliveries to communities by codifying the historic, bipartisan state/federal agreement known as the “Bay- Delta Accord.”

• Reforms punitive federal laws, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act in order to provide fairness to ratepayers, promote transparency and accountability, and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

• Allows water users to pay off federal debt early. ! Protects and secures private property and senior water rights. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor