Gov. Jerry Brown of California is trying to fend off an attempt from Washington to come to the rescue of the state’s worst-ever drought.
On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives is set to vote on legislation that would ease environmental measures to let more water flow to California farmers, whose acreage produces fully half of America's fruits and vegetables. The bill, called The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, was introduced by several members of the state’s GOP delegation.
The vote is slated to come just five days after the California Department of Water Resources announced that State Water Project customers – primarily water districts that serve about 25 million people statewide and irrigate about 750,000 acres of farmland – will get no water this year because of dry conditions.
The House bill would roll back many environmental protections for several endangered species; end long-term efforts to restore water flows, and salmon runs, to the San Joaquin River; and replace state water and endangered species laws. The intent is to allow more water to be pumped from the Sacramento Delta – the giant sponge in the state's midsection that is fed by rivers flowing down from the Sierra Nevada mountains – to farmers in the fertile San Joaquin Valley.
“This bill ends the madness of putting fish before families and creates a solution to ensure consistent water deliveries for our communities when Mother Nature blesses us with precipitation,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California said Monday, in an e-mail statement to The Associated Press. He created the bill with fellow GOP Reps. David Valadao and Devin Nunes. “Any other proposed idea to ameliorate the effects of today’s drought would not be felt for over a dozen years. Our communities cannot wait,” Mr. McCarthy said.
But Governor Brown – along with US Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California – opposes the bill on grounds that a host of drought-relief ideas is already percolating in the state, and that it sets a bad precedent for the federal government to intrude.
The House measure is “an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis,” Brown said in a statement. “It would override state laws and protections, and mandate that certain water interests come out ahead of others. It falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies. [The bill] would interfere with our ability to respond effectively and flexibly to the current emergency, and would re-open old water wounds undermining years of progress toward reaching a collaborative long-term solution to our water needs.”
Senator Feinstein, likewise, is critical of the House bill, saying it “is another irresponsible proposal that puts politics ahead of the needs of California, and candidly, it’s very disappointing. The bill is nothing more than a recycled version of legislation from 2011, and it is profoundly dangerous for California. ...[It] undermines state law related to Bay-Delta restoration and endangered species. It overrides the court-approved San Joaquin River Settlement Agreement, which all parties involved still agree with. And it ends any possibility of a balanced solution to restore the Bay [and] Delta.”
Many environmental groups have mobilized in opposition.
“The fact of matter is that the drought is to blame for our low water, not environmental laws,” says Steve Fleischli, water program director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The governor is rightly critical of a bunch of ideas that would be nothing but divisive and not at all proactive in solving the problem.”
Some analysts say for the state to accept the House bill would be to set dangerous precedent in other matters.
“This is one of the firmest statements I’ve ever seen Jerry Brown make, and I don’t think it’s an overreaction because of the precedent it would set,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “What would that signal to Washington about issues such as transportation and air quality? It’s a state’s rights issue, not a federal issue. It ignores a lot of thoughtful discussion about rationing and voluntary water use, and it would really annoy people.”
Some agriculture groups support the House bill.
Western Growers Association President and CEO Tom Nassif said in a statement he believes a "bipartisan agreement is necessary and possible."
"The drought is doing great damage to farmers, farmworkers and many other people who are part of the most productive agriculture state in the country," Mr. Nassif said. "Federal regulatory decisions made last year in the delta made this situation much worse by failing to pump and store more than 800,000 acre feet of winter runoff."
Brown, for his part, wants the state to adopt laws to fund projects on drought preparedness, efficiency, water recycling, and that would ensure safe drinking water. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D) is crafting a bill to set a July 1 deadline for state agencies to approve water recycling and stormwater reuse projects.
"California is experiencing an unprecedented dry period and shortage of water for its citizens, local governments, agriculture, and other uses," the draft bill says. The measures, amendments to a Steinberg bill that is already pending, would expedite so-called “shovel ready” projects that can bring relief, whether this is the last year of drought or just another year in a much longer drought. The proposal would appropriate $11 million of existing state and federal funds for clean-drinking-water programs and direct the State Water Resources Control Board to speed up spending that money to help poor and disadvantaged communities.
Brown, who is up for reelection this year, will have his work cut out for him to craft an emergency drought-management plan that the many interest groups – city officials, farmers, water districts, and environmentalists – can at least live with, if not endorse.
“The conflict reflects the difference between the perceived pro-environmental bias of the state’s Democrat-dominated government and the perceived pro-business bias of the Republican[-led US] House,” says Michael Shires a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “To find the right balance, the state will have to find a way to make sure the business interests of the state are adequately represented in an atmosphere where environmental interest groups hold the best cards at the negotiating table.”