Deck the halls with paper water
The more water you give agribusiness bully boys, the greedier they become. The more government provides them, the more anti-government they become. The more socially responsible government becomes in making resources available, the more the greedy bully boys scream "Socialist!" at anyone who calls for limits to government largesse to its agribusiness corruptors.
The more private property ownership appears in its mode of a bundle of rights subject to regulations, the more the myth of absolute property rights is asserted by big landowners, their lawyers and bought politicians. And the well drilling goes on until someday, some banks are going to own a lot of choice coyote habitat.
Would Senator Diane Feinstein feel so strongly about the plight of South San Joaquin Valley farmers if her Aspen neighbors, Stuart and Lynda Resnick, didn't own controlling interest in the Kern County Water Bank and didn't own the largest almond operation in the region? In a moment when Democrats are raising hell about Trump's conflicts of interest -- real enough, to be sure -- could they spare a moment to look into their own conflicts?
Deflect, reflect, project -- anything but introspect.
An era of limits: California proposes steering more water to fish, less to farms, cities
Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler
In a move that foreshadows sweeping statewide reductions in the amount of river water available for human needs, California regulators on Thursday proposed a stark set of cutbacks to cities and farms that receive water from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries.
To protect endangered fish at critical parts of their life cycle, regulators proposed leaving hundreds of thousands of additional acre-feet of water in the San Joaquin River system. As little as 20 percent of the river now flows unimpeded to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and regulators said they want the so-called “natural” flow raised to at least 30 percent and perhaps as high as 50 percent.
The proposal by staff members at the State Water Resources Control Board is yet another effort to improve the ecosystem of one of California’s most overused river systems, where flows sometimes drop to a comparative trickle. Overhauling the San Joaquin system is sure to add new drama to the conflicts over California’s stretched water supply, a situation that has been complicated by the onset of drought five years ago.
The five-person board will gather input from farmers, environmentalists and others before voting on a plan, likely early next year.
With more water devoted to fish and other environmental needs, the proposal could lead to substantial cuts in water deliveries to San Francisco, Modesto, Merced and Turlock, as well as San Joaquin Valley farmers who pull from the rivers to water their crops. The process is likely to entail legal and political fights, as many of those cities and farm groups hold so-called “senior” water rights, whose historic claims on water have traditionally buffered them from cutbacks.
The proposal set off alarm bells in San Francisco, which has been drawing water from the Tuolumne River for nearly a century. “This could have serious implications for the 2.6 million water customers we serve throughout the Bay Area,” said Charles Sheehan, spokesman for the city’s Public Utilities Commission.
State officials propose leaving anywhere between 288,000 and 485,000 acre-feet of additional water in the river system. Water board staff said the plan would curb agricultural production by an estimated $64 million a year. That represents 2.5 percent of the annual farm production in the affected areas.
Farm groups, already struggling with dropoffs in water deliveries during the drought, said they believe the impact would be far greater.
Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition said the region served by the San Joaquin watershed is heavily planted in vineyards, nut trees and other high-value crops, and the decline in output would be closer to $150 million. The California Farm Bureau Federation said the plan could idle as many as 240,000 acres of Central Valley farmland “with no guarantee the redirection of water will help the fish.”
One of the state’s leading fishing groups, on the other hand, applauded the announcement. John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, described the proposal as “a historic step to right a wrong” that has imperiled numerous species, including salmon, smelt and steelhead trout.
“Now we have a chance to at least save some of the salmon that still survive in the San Joaquin and its tributaries by leaving a little bit of water for them,” he said in an emailed statement.
The several thousand pages of documents released by the water board represent the first phase in a sweeping set of regulatory updates that eventually will determine just how much water must be left in the Delta ecosystem. Felicia Marcus, the board’s chairwoman, said the standards haven’t been updated since 1995.
“The current standards are out of date, and fish populations have plummeted,” she said on a conference call with reporters. The fish “need far more water left in the river to have a chance at survival.”
She also said regulators are trying to minimize harm to farms and cities – a task that she admits won’t be easy.
“You will hear we’ve done too much,” she told reporters. “You will hear we haven’t done enough. You will not hear anyone tell us we got it just right.”
In the coming months, the state board also will re-examine water flows into the Delta from the Sacramento River. Regulators said that they don’t expect changes in flow requirements there would be as drastic.
The state board is charged with overseeing California’s complicated system of senior and junior water rights, while making sure enough water is allocated to environmental purposes. A 1969 state law and 1986 court ruling give the water board the authority to take supplies from water rights holders, but legal experts say there’s plenty of gray area and a final decision could get tied up in court, possibly for years.
Steve Knell, general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District, offered a blunt reaction to Thursday’s announcement.
“We are going to challenge it,” he said. “We don’t think this is the correct way to address water issues in California.”
With scientists predicting warmer winters and longer droughts in the years ahead, Gov. Jerry Brown and state regulators repeatedly have warned urban and rural residents that they should prepare for a new era of limits. But, in practice, the water board has had a mixed record when it comes to reining in the state’s historically liberal water use.
Last year, the board ordered some senior water rights holders to stop taking water from the Delta, and fined one district $1.5 million for ignoring its order. But it backed off when it acknowledged it couldn’t prove the district wasn’t entitled to the water.
Earlier this spring, the board also scrapped its year-old conservation rules that forced urban water agencies to cut consumption by an average of 25 percent over 2013. Districts now are allowed to set their own conservation standards, and urban water use is on the rise.
Marcus said she believes the water board has the legal authority to order districts to leave more water in the San Joaquin and its tributaries, but she’s hoping they’ll come to the table rather than fight.
“We’re hoping they’ll work with us, and they’ll chip in their fair share,” she said.
The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers merge to form the largest estuary on the West Coast, a fragile ecosystem that serves as the hub of California’s water delivery network. Two government-run pumping plants in the south Delta deliver water to 25 million people in Southern California and the Bay Area, as well as 3 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.
During the years of drought, Central Valley farmers have turned to intensive groundwater pumping to make up for lost surface supplies, critically depleting aquifers in some basins. State officials acknowledged Thursday that the new plan would lead to even more pumping as farmers compensate for further cutbacks.
Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, said Californians must reckon with a water system that’s been taxed beyond its limits.
“Even if you were to capture every drop of water that fell in the San Joaquin Basin, you’re not going to have enough water for all of the people that are expecting water,” Lund said. “It’s simple arithmetic.”
Farmers say, ‘No apologies,’ as well drilling hits record levels in San Joaquin Valley
Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese
Drive through rural Tulare County and you’ll hear it soon enough, a roar from one of the hundreds of agricultural pumps pulling water from beneath the soil to keep the nut and fruit orchards and vast fields of corn and alfalfa lush and green under the scorching San Joaquin Valley sun.
Well water is keeping agriculture alive in Tulare County – and much of the rest of the San Joaquin Valley – through five years of California’s historic drought. Largely cut off from the supplies normally delivered via canals by the federal and state water projects, farmers have been drilling hundreds of feet into the ground to bring up the water they need to turn a profit.
Two years after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill designed to limit groundwater pumping, new wells are going in faster and deeper than ever. Farmers dug about 2,500 wells in the San Joaquin Valley last year alone, the highest number on record. That was five times the annual average for the previous 30 years, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of state and local data.
The new groundwater law won’t kick in until 2020, and won’t become fully implemented for another 20 years. In the meantime, farmers say they will continuing drilling and pumping. It’s their right, they say, and their only practical choice given the government’s limited surface water deliveries.
“Just like a guy that owns a hardware store who sells nothing but shovels, say I cut you off and decide not to supply you with shovels, are you going to close your store or are you going to get shovels from somebody else?” said Wayne Western Jr., a wine grape grower near Firebaugh in the parched west side of Fresno County.
“It’s a business. I’ll make no apologies for trying to stay in business and being successful,” said Western, who’s been relying almost exclusively on well water the past three years. “That’s what we do here.”
Part of what’s driving the well-drilling frenzy is a kind of groundwater arms race. Aquifers don’t respect property lines, and in many cases farmers with older, shallower wells are afraid of losing water to neighbors who are digging deeper wells and lowering the groundwater table. So they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill new wells of their own. All told, farmers are expected to spend $303 million this year alone to pump groundwater, according to UC Davis researchers.
“Business is good; we’ve got plenty of work to do,” said driller Steve Arthur, who runs Arthur & Orum Well Drilling Inc. in Fresno.
On a recent weekday, Arthur was overseeing the drilling of a massive 1,200-foot well beneath an almond orchard in the tiny Tulare County community of Poplar. A few years ago, the typical well was only half as deep.
“These farmers, they’re learning if they go deeper, they’re going to get more water and they won’t have to drill as often,” Arthur said, shouting over the din of a drill rig. “If the government don’t give us any water, what’s the farmer supposed to do?”
The new well in Poplar cost about $260,000.
Arthur said he expects to drill about 260 new wells this year throughout the San Joaquin Valley. That’s about the same as last year, although the well-drilling industry isn’t quite as frantic now. Prices for new wells are off slightly, and some of Arthur’s Johnny-come-lately competitors – the so-called “drought chasers” – have left town. But Arthur, who farms 200 acres of almonds, said he thinks the well-drilling business won’t sputter anytime soon.
“When the farmer gets up in the morning, the last thing he wants to do is spend $200,000, $300,000 on a well,” Arthur said. “But if he wants to stay in business, that’s what he’s got to do.”
From 2012 through 2015, San Joaquin Valley farmers dug more than 5,000 wells, more than were dug cumulatively over the previous 12 years.
In Fresno and Tulare counties, where most of the drilling occurred, officials issued an average of almost 10 agricultural well permits every business day in 2015, though not all of those permits were used. That pace has fallen some in the first few months of 2016, but remains well above pre-drought levels. Tulare and Fresno are two of the three largest agricultural counties in the state, as measured by farm revenue.
As farmers ramp up drilling and install larger, more powerful pumps, aquifers that had quietly flourished beneath the soil for thousands of years are dropping at dangerous rates. It’s accelerating a phenomenon known as subsidence, in which some parts of the valley floor are sinking.
The problems of groundwater overdraft are most pronounced in the San Joaquin Valley, but they’re not limited to there.
“It’s a five-alarm fire in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Jay Ziegler of the Nature Conservancy, which has pleaded for stricter statewide restrictions on pumping. “But it’s a four-alarm fire in other areas around the state.”
The well drilling has exacted a substantial human cost in some of California’s poorest rural communities – the ones populated by workers who tend the fields kept green by all that groundwater.
Falling water tables mean underground pollutants become more concentrated, and in some cases municipal drinking-water wells fail altogether. By one estimate, about 30 percent of the communities in Tulare County have had problems with failing wells.
In East Porterville, hundreds of residents lost water in recent years. Tomas Garcia remembers the day in April 2014 when his shallow well failed. At work at a local tire shop, he got a call from his wife when their shower suddenly stopped working. What followed was a year of hauling water in 5-gallon buckets, to the point that the shocks on the family van blew out.
“No church, nothing. I was just hauling water,” he said. “I had no time for my family.” He also didn’t have the $55,000 necessary to drill down to reach the receding groundwater.
In April 2015, Garcia’s house was connected to a 2,500-gallon water tank that’s refilled by tanker truck once a week. Like hundreds of other homes in East Porterville, where some streets are unpaved and the sounds of barking dogs and braying livestock mingle with mariachi music, the black tank now takes up most of the Garcia family’s small front yard, an obelisk-like monument to the drought.
Just recently the town got a lifeline when officials announced it would be hooked up to the municipal water supply in nearby Porterville. All told, the state estimates it has spent more than $148 million bringing drinking water to Tulare County communities where municipal wells failed because of dropping groundwater levels.
One of the more recent crises flared in August in Woodville, a largely agricultural town of 1,700 surrounded by farm fields and irrigation pumps. One of its two drinking water wells suffered a mechanical failure that the utility district attributed to fluctuations in the water table.
Without enough flow to stave off bacterial contamination, town officials issued an advisory urging residents to boil water. It stayed in place for nearly three weeks before the well could be repaired. At the elementary school, across the street from a fruit and nut processing plant, signs on doors and above drinking fountains warned students, “Don’t drink the water.”
During the crisis, Ralph Gutierrez, manager of Woodville’s utility district, said that because there wasn’t enough pressure in the town’s waterlines, he had no choice but to cite residents he caught spritzing lawns and landscaping with garden hoses.
He noted with irony that even as he was fining residents for their water use, he recently counted 60 new agricultural wells just outside town during one week of his daily commute.
But the response he got was icy when he suggested to farmers at a recent community meeting that they accept limits on groundwater pumping.
“If looks could kill, I would have been crucified,” said Gutierrez, a familiar figure around town with his bushy mustache, weathered Dodgers cap and pack of smokes in his shirt pocket.
Others have pushed for local pumping limits, with similar results.
Kristin Dobbin, who works at a Visalia nonprofit advocacy group called the Community Water Center, has been pushing the Tulare Board of Supervisors to adopt a county ordinance that would put limits on groundwater. Supervisors have yet to cast a vote more than a year later.
Steve Worthley, one of the supervisors, said he’s wary of limiting groundwater pumping, given agriculture’s importance to Tulare County. Besides, there’s always the possibility that the rains might return and the groundwater pumping will taper off.
“There might become a weather pattern where we might be like Louisiana, where we might get more water than we know what to do with,” Worthley said. “So we want to be careful we don’t put into place laws that hamstring our ability to be the fruit basket of the nation.”
In conversations throughout the valley, it’s also clear that farmers seethe with anger at the government for not sending more surface water their way. While much of California remains unusually dry, precipitation levels returned to normal in Northern California last winter, bringing key reservoirs back to relatively healthy levels.
Farmers feel they haven’t gotten their fair share of that water. The reason? State and federal officials allowed more water to flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to the Pacific Ocean during portions of winter and spring to try to revive the native fish species, including salmon and smelt, whose numbers have plummeted in the drought.
“The farmers need the water, you know,” said Kulwant Gadri, a Tulare County almond grower who’s spending more than $1 million this year on new wells. If an almond orchard goes longer than two months without it, “the orchard is gone.”
The situation is getting so dire, said Arthur, the Fresno well driller, that he questions whether the 2014 state law placing limits on pumping will ever get implemented.
“They stop drilling wells, they’re going to kill this valley,” he said. “They may never get this law going.”
State officials say the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will take effect. But, by design, it’s a go-slow approach and doesn’t directly put limits on drilling.
Instead, starting in 2020, newly formed groundwater management agencies overseeing basins deemed critically overdrafted must develop plans for making their aquifers sustainable within 20 years. “Sustainable” generally means districts must ensure groundwater basins don’t drop below their January 2015 levels, said David Gutierrez, who is supervising the rollout of the new law at the state Department of Water Resources.
Gutierrez defends the gradual approach, arguing that bringing a swift halt to groundwater pumping would cripple a farm economy that’s already struggling. After a string of record years, farm revenue last year fell by $9 billion statewide, in part because of water shortages but also because of declining prices in key commodities.
“We can’t afford to swing so quickly and so fast,” Gutierrez said. “We’re not going to turn it on a dime. ...We have to understand the social ramification of what we’re doing, too.”
The go-slow concept was driven home in the state Legislature this year. Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, introduced a bill sponsored by the Nature Conservancy that in effect would have put the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act on a faster track. Her bill, SB 1317, would have prohibited counties from issuing permits for new wells that would have contributed to “undesirable impacts” in critically overdrafted groundwater basins.
The bill narrowly passed the Senate, but failed to get a hearing in the Assembly amid significant opposition. Among those weighing in: the California Chamber of Commerce, California Farm Bureau Federation and associations representing rice, tomato, cotton and citrus growers.
Back in Woodville, utility manager Ralph Gutierrez says officials need to act soon to prevent more wells from failing in other impoverished communities. He fears regulators are forgetting that farmworkers in these towns play as important a role in California agriculture as the groundwater farmers are pumping into their crops.
“Without farming, would this community be here? No,” he said. “Would the farming happen if we didn’t have farmworkers? No. So, you know, I don’t know what the answer is, but we’ve got to find a happy medium somewhere, because we can’t exist without the other.”
Boxer, Feinstein in angry split over new California water-bill plan
A controversial California water bill that’s sparked years of fighting has been added to a fast-moving measure, boosting the chance the water measures will pass Congress but sharply dividing the state’s U.S. senators.
In a remarkable break for the two longtime Democratic allies, Sen. Barbara Boxer pledged Monday to fight against the legislation written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Now in the final weeks of her congressional career, Boxer said she would seek to block the broader water-projects bill to which Feinstein and her Republican allies in the House of Representatives had attached the California measure.
“This is a devastating maneuver,” Boxer said. “This last-minute backroom deal is so wrong. It is shocking, and it will have devastating consequences if it makes it into law, which I can tell you I will do everything in my power to make sure that it never, ever makes it into law.”
Though she has allies, Boxer’s stand might prove a relatively lonely one, as the larger Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act is the kind of bill that typically enjoys wide bipartisan support. The House and Senate expect to take it up, with its dozens of pages related to California water, over the next week.
“This bill isn’t perfect but I do believe it will help California,” Feinstein said. “After three years and dozens of versions of legislation, I think this is the best we can do.”
Pointedly, Feinstein added that “if we don’t move now, we run the real risk of legislation . . . when Congress will again be under Republican control, this time backed by a Trump administration.”
Based largely on legislation Feinstein introduced last February, the California water provisions authorize $558 million for desalination, recycling and storage projects, among other proposals. The legislation does not identify what specific storage projects will receive funding.
The provisions also authorize, for five years, what Feinstein described as “operational provisions” that will “help operate the water system more efficiently, pumping water when fish are not nearby.” It eases limits on moving water south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to help San Joaquin Valley farms, but does not mandate specific pumping levels.
The bill includes language designed to ensure that federal water officials must still abide by laws including the Endangered Species Act, as well as the biological opinions that guide protections for certain species.
Nonetheless, Boxer said she and Feinstein had a “big disagreement.”
“Ninety-eight percent of the time we see everything the same way. We don’t see (this) the same way,” Boxer said.
Boxer, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and other environmental groups, charged that the measure would roll back the Endangered Species Act, risking drinking water and fishing jobs in California by shifting water from the environment to large-scale corporate agriculture.
Boxer said her allies in fighting the measure included Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Boxer said there was enough opposition to make it difficult for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring the water bill to a vote unless the California “poison pill” was removed.
She pledged to slow down unrelated legislation unless it is taken out.
“They are not playing a game with someone who will not play hardball,” Boxer said
The broader water resources bill, which spans more than 700 pages, is all but guaranteed to pass in the Republican-controlled House, where Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield praised the California provisions as “an important moment for California.” Fresno-area Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat, likewise offered support for the package.
Thirteen House Democrats – including a number from Northern California led by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael – have already written to the Obama administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, declaring the proposal “undermines both state and federal environmental protections for the Delta ecosystem.” The House Democrats, though, have little ability to stop the bill, and the House has repeatedly passed related California water legislation authored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.
“These provisions will not solve California’s water crisis, but they will provide interim relief, which my constituents desperately need,” Valadao said Monday.
The Senate, though also controlled by Republicans, can be more unpredictable, as members of the minority have more parliamentary tools at their disposal.
Senate colleagues since 1993, Boxer and Feinstein usually have been able to maintain a relatively unified front in public even on the most contentious California water conflicts. Behind the scenes, Feinstein has been the one actively negotiating with Central Valley irrigation districts, while Boxer has until now played a much quieter role.
On Monday, Boxer sought to attribute the responsibility for the California water provisions to McCarthy, saying she didn’t know what role Feinstein had played in the backroom negotiations that resulted in the provisions becoming attached to the larger water resources bill.
Feinstein’s role was, in fact, crucial and won praise from McCarthy, who said the package “could not have been finalized” without her.
“Action is long overdue,” Feinstein said.
White House won’t support California water bill that’s already divided its senators
The White House on Tuesday voiced doubts about controversial California water legislation that has already caused an unusually public split between the state’s two Democratic senators.
Meeting with reporters, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the California provisions that span some 91 pages of often-technical text seemed problematic, though he cautioned that analysis continues.
“Based on what we know so far, we don’t support the kinds of proposals that have been put forward to address some of the water resources issues in California right now,” Earnest said. “So, we don’t support that measure that’s being put forward, but we’ll take a look at the bill in its totality.”
If it holds firm, the Obama administration’s resistance could greatly complicate efforts by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield to add the California language onto a sprawling bill that pays for many other projects nationwide.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer had helped negotiate the larger bill, called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, as the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This larger bill includes California-specific provisions, including continued funding for Lake Tahoe restorations.
Boxer vehemently opposes, though, the additional California language negotiated over an extended time among Feinstein, McCarthy and their respective teams. Boxer and environmental groups fear water diversions for the benefit of farmers will harm vulnerable habitat and threatened species, among other potential problems.
Based largely on legislation Feinstein introduced last February, as well as competing measures pushed by House Republicans, the California water provisions authorize $558 million for desalination, recycling and storage projects, among other proposals. The legislation does not identify what specific storage projects will receive funding.
The provisions authorize, for five years, what Feinstein described as “operational provisions” that will “help operate the water system more efficiently, pumping water when fish are not nearby.” It eases limits on moving water south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to help San Joaquin Valley farms, and it aims to protect Northern California water deliveries, as well.
Nancy Vogel, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said in an e-mail Tuesday that “we’re not commenting on the water infrastructure bill.”
“Obviously, Boxer is not being of any help, ” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a California water bill supporter, said Tuesday. “She has refused ... to understand the challenges that we face in terms of a broken water system.”
LOIS HENRY: One more try for federal fixes to California's water woes
Local water folks are hopeful, but not holding their breath, that the latest congressional effort to move a little more water down the pike from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will actually succeed.
Even if it does, I'm sure environmental activists already have their lawyers prepped and ready for launch.
But it's the holidays, so who knows?
This legislation may be the Christmas miracle that everyone had hoped El Niño would be last year. (Rotten little boy.)
It's expected to be taken up by the House and Senate over the next week.
Anyhow, here's what all the hubbub is about, at least in water circles.
For the last several years, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has worked with legislators from the valley including Reps. Kevin McCarthy and David Valadao to create some legislation that would get more water to valley farmers without tampering too much with delta operations.
Every attempt died in the Senate.
This time around, Feinstein and friends attached the legislation, which includes some goodies for California, to a larger bill known as the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.
The act has lots of money to fix water problems in Flint, Mich., and elsewhere around the nation.
It also has $558 million for California for desalination, recycling and storage projects. No specific projects are named.
But that’s not what water folks are most interested in.
The real meat is in provisions that would authorize operational changes in the delta for a five-year period.
The provisions are limited to five years because this is considered short-term "drought relief."
Each provision gets a bit into the weeds and I’m not sure you want to know all about south-delta flows, timing, salinity and such.
So, here are three main things local water folks are looking at with cautious hope.
First, current flow regulations run from restrictive to more lenient based on how regulators feel species in the delta are doing.
This legislation directs regulators to operate the delta on the more lenient side unless they can actually show there would be harm to species.
Second, the legislation would allow more storm, or high-flow, water to be captured without requiring a later “pay back.”
Both of those provisions have been implemented previously on short-term or emergency trials.
Third, and here’s where a lot of activists might go apoplectic, federal regulators would be required to consult with local water agencies on the science surrounding delta smelt and salmon species.
I can already hear the “fox and hen house” comparisons.
But consulting with local water agencies is actually a part of the Endangered Species Act’s directive, said Curtis Creel, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency.
When the ESA was originally envisioned, Creel said, it was understood that local agencies could provide expertise and technical assistance so regulators would better understand the systems they were regulating.
But that hasn’t happened.
“We have not been allowed at the table,” Creel said.
If the legislation passes and water agencies join the conversation about delta operations, we will all hear a lot more of this — “other stressors.”
Attempts to improve species’ health in the delta have focused almost exclusively on how much water washes through the delta as opposed to how much is pumped out for farms at cities at the south end of the delta near Tracy.
“Everyone focuses on the pumps,” Creel said.
But species are also affected by non-native predator fish such as the striped and large mouth bass, by ammonia from sewage discharges from cities around the delta, from increased heat as water is run through power plants in the delta and other issues.
“There’ve been changes in the nutrients to the point that habitat has been modified so it’s better for predators than the native species we’re trying to protect,” Creel said. “You could shut down the (water exporting) projects entirely and probably not see recovery of the endangered species unless you address those other stressors.”
Creel and other water contractors have complained that regulators have reduced water exports for nearly 30 years with no benefit to endangered species.
But many activists have countered that exports have actually increased over the years under the guise of “excess” water allotments from both the state and federal systems.
Either way, you can see that even if this federal legislation passes, the arguing will continue.
And it’s certainly not guaranteed to pass.
In fact, Feinstein’s longtime ally, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has broken ranks with Feinstein and vowed to fight the California add-on to the water legislation with all her might for her remaining month in office.
Which is why a lot of water folks aren't biting their nails in anticipation of more water from the delta.
"I'm not optimistic," said Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District. "I've seen this type legislation fail too many times."