San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

Obama signs national water bill
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By Craig W. Anderson

President Obama signed into law the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) and California's agriculture and water sectors were generally happy by the $558 million allocated to California for drought-relief actions. The bill attracted bipartisan support and passed the House 360-61 and the Senate approved it 78-21.

"From what I know, it appears to be good for San Joaquin County," said SJFB President Andrew Watkins. "However, California is working on its own water legislation and the question will probably arise: who takes precedence, the state or the feds? I'm sure the end result will be legal action."

Projected projects for California funded by the $558 million include water storage and desalination and a number of short-term provisions to increase the state's ability to maneuver to meet drought issues. The main $10 billion bill will fund improving drinking water safety and other water and drought elements.

The California funding portion includes $335 million for groundwater and surface storage projects; $150 million for water recycling and conservation; $30 million for desalinization efforts; and $43 million to benefit fish and wildlife.

"Bipartisan language in the bill addresses the chronic water shortages that have plagued California for a generation," said CFBF President Paul Wenger. "This bill is being described as a victory for farmers, but it's really a victory for balance in managing a vital resource."

Bill praised

Many found the bill praiseworthy. "This bill helps deliver water to our communities," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. "It will increase pumping. It will increase storage. It will fund more desalination, efficiency and recycling projects."

"It is a good bill for California," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford said, "Water scarcity in the Central Valley carries serious consequences, not only for…the state, but for our entire nation."

Boxer vexed

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and McCarthy ensured California drought relief by including nearly 100 pages of additional provisions for the state attached as a rider to the main bill, an occurrence that vexed lame-duck Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer sufficiently that she voted against the bill because of the "dangerous" rider that "undermined the Endangered Species Act and protections for salmon and Delta smelt." She sided with environmentalists who say altering water flows will harm wildlife, their habitat and adversely affect the commercial salmon fishing industry.

Feinstein sees positives

Feinstein demurred, saying, "The bill contains strong, comprehensive language stating its provisions must be implemented under terms consistent with the ESA and relevant biological opinions."

"Boxer tried to hold it off," said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. "There is a great deal that's positive such as a lot of funding for water storage, addressing predation issues, storage projects such as the Temperance Flat and Sites reservoirs and many others that Farm Bureau will continue to monitor."

The bill makes moving water to the southern San Joaquin Valley easier while including language easing the burdens to build new dams and other water projects, which could include Gov. Brown's twin tunnels.

Predation kaput

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, had language added that ends the goal of doubling the Delta's striped bass population and targets other non-native predatory fish for elimination in the Stanislaus River. Predation is a major problem as young salmon, smelt and other fish are eaten and their numbers significantly reduced.

Research by FishBio shows as much as 95 percent of young salmon don't make it to the ocean because they're eaten by predators. WIIN directs the National Marines Fisheries Service to work with South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District to reduce the threats posed to young salmon and steelhead trout by striped bass and other predators.

According to Peter Rietkerk, SSJID general manager, "Predation control, habitat restoration and flows are all important to a healthy salmon population; it's not just flow, as the state is currently asserting. We applaud Congress for its efforts to promote holistic drought solutions for the region."

"We believe passage of this legislation will allow the Stanislaus River to be a blueprint for how water and resource management and fisheries management can collectively be combined to attain important reginal solutions," said Steve Knell of the Oakdale Irrigation District.

State vs. Feds?

"Will the state work with the feds and have a meeting of the minds regarding their water bills," David Strecker, SJFB second vice president, asked rhetorically. "I'm concerned that the federal bill may contain covert support for Gov. Brown's twin tunnels. The bill seems, on the surface, to address many water issues. We'll see what happens."

ESA continues

Obama said in his non-binding statement it is "essential that a cooperative relationship between state and federal officials not be undermined by anyone seeking to override" the bill's balance by "misstating or incorrectly reading" the law. "The bill requires," he said, "continued application and implementation of the Endangered Species Act."

However, Trump administration officials will have leeway to interpret the bill and candidates for Interior Department solicitor and the assistant secretary for water and science would be directly responsible for implementing the California provisions.

Water to ag and humans

Ultimately, the WIIN gives the largest share of water to agriculture and other human uses to obviate the impact of a now-six year drought and this is sure to cause some disagreements or, as Peter Moyle, professor emeritus of biology at UC Davis, "There's going to be fighting and it is going to commence almost immediately."

There could be a battle with the bill's requirement that biologists show more hard data on endangered fish in real time when they demand a reduction in pumping. Or environmentalists may battle against water storage projects that would capture winter rain runoff instead of allowing it to flow to the Pacific Ocean, thus improving the health of San Francisco Bay.

Fish advocates litigate

If the law allows water to be taken away from native species enrolled in the state and federal Endangered Species Acts and related court orders, "fish advocates are expected to go to court," said Doug Obegi with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But WIIN may cause fish advocates to take pause, according to Congressman Tom McClintock, who said, "In this bill is language that pushes for new fish hatcheries to meet ESA requirements for endangered species. So, instead of releasing millions of acre feet of water annually for environmental purposes, we'll be able to meet the ESA criteria by adding fish hatcheries that can produce millions of smolts in a single year."

More water for humans

Then, again, according to Jay Lund, veteran water policy expert at UC Davis, the new law will provide "up to an additional half-million acre-feet of water for human users. But dueling legislation between Congress and the state Legislature and parallel legal battles in court and everyone paying attention to that instead of making the system run better – that's my worry."

New Melones optimism

Despite the potential political contretemps, McClintock remains optimistic. "In this water bill is added flexibility to manage the New Melones Reservoir. It means we'll be able to store more water in it for beneficial human use."

Common sense

WIIN expedites approval of new water projects, updates flood control criteria and, he said, "It begins to add some degree of common sense to the environmental laws that have forced huge releases of water from the dams, even in the middle of the drought."

Building on WIIN

He summed up the situation with, "We've now laid the groundwork for legislation in the next session where we can build upon these reforms to deliver a new generation of water abundance to the people of California."