Fact check on Devin Nunes
On the floor of the House of Representatives last week, south valley Rep. Devin Nunes was calling attention to all of the “wasted” water that flowed out to the ocean this year when he made an interesting comment:
“Some on the other side of the aisle, they continually talk about global warming, and they continually talk about how the oceans are rising,” said Nunes, a Republican. “If you believe the oceans are rising, why would you want more water to flow out to the ocean? I don’t understand that.”
The implication was that the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and their tributaries, were running so strong and so full this year that they might have worsened the danger posed by global sea level rise.
That’s not the case. Nunes said 46 million acre-feet of water flowed beneath the Golden Gate into the ocean, which has a total worldwide volume of… wait for it… 1 quadrillion acre feet, or about 321,000,000 square miles.
Runoff from interior California has a negligible impact on such a vast pool of water.
“It’s like spitting into Lake Tahoe,” said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
But wait: If you are rather generous in interpreting his comment, Nunes isn’t entirely off base.
Let’s back up and allow Patzert to explain.
For millions of years, the Earth’s waters have been in hydrologic balance. Water from the ocean evaporates, generating precipitation that falls over land and feeds our rivers, which then dump into the ocean and replenishes the water that evaporated in the first place. Not that complicated.
If you were to disrupt that cycle by damming all of the rivers in the world, with nary a drop trickling into the ocean, sea levels would indeed decline.
Conversely, if all of the rivers in the world were allowed to run unfettered to the sea, global sea levels would rise about 10 centimeters or 4 inches, Patzert said.
“He (Nunes) isn’t totally wrong,” Patzert said.
That said, rivers’ contribution to sea level rise is small in the grand scheme of things. One-third of sea level rise is blamed on heat which is absorbed by the oceans and causes them to expand, Patzert said. The other two-thirds can be blamed on the melting of the great ice sheets. Both causes are tied to carbon dioxide emissions by humans.
“The flow on the Sacramento River is so far down the noise level compared to those two things,” Patzert said.
San Francisco Chronicle
GOP push to shift state water policy away from conservation
WASHINGTON — With a friend in the White House and their party in control of both chambers of Congress, House Republicans have embarked on their most ambitious effort yet to change the way water flows in California.
Legislation that the House sent to the Senate last week outlines a bold effort to build big new dams and shift water from fish, birds and other wildlife to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
The legislation would dry up long stretches of the state’s second-longest river, the San Joaquin, and end efforts to restore its obliterated salmon runs. It would downgrade the water rights of the wildlife refuges that make up the last patches of California’s interior wetlands.
The bill would speed reviews of five big dam projects in the state, long stalled because of their enormous cost and low water yields. It would drain more water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, override the Endangered Species Act and shift California’s control over its water to the federal government by preempting the state’s authority to protect fish.
“It’s a controversial bill for certain groups, but here in the valley it’s not controversial,” said Ryan Jacobsen, a grape farmer south of Fresno and executive director for the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “This is the bill we need.”
Jacobsen called Fresno County the epicenter of the state’s recent record drought, which significantly reduced water deliveries to farms and cut many farmers off entirely.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from Hanford (Kings County), and backed by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, is the latest and most ambitious iteration of an effort begun six years ago by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. Until this year’s record rains ended the state’s five-year dry spell, the push was billed as drought legislation. Now it’s called the Gaining Responsibility on Water, or Grow, Act.
“There is no reason — absolutely no reason — we should prioritize potential benefits to fish over real benefits to families,” McCarthy said during the House debate last week.
The bill passed the House on a mostly party-line vote, without public hearings, and drew swift opposition from Gov. Jerry Brown, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, all Democrats. The fishing industry and environmentalists also oppose it.
The biggest stumbling block to past Republican efforts on water diversion was a White House veto threat, but with a Republican now in the White House, that barrier no longer exists. Although Feinstein and Harris could filibuster a stand-alone Senate version, Republicans could work around that by attaching the legislation, whole or in pieces, to any of a slew of unrelated, must-pass bills — from an increase in the federal debt ceiling to appropriations needed to keep the government open.
“This is the most brazen water grab bill we’ve seen since at least the mid-1990s,” said John McManus, head of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a fisheries group.
“What it boils down to,” he said, “is the backers of this bill, a small number of people in the western San Joaquin Valley, are saying, ‘To heck with it, we’re simply going to manage the Central Valley’s rivers and the delta as nothing more than a canal to move Northern California water to us, and we really don’t care about keeping the ecosystem alive anymore. It’s too much of a bother.’”
Jacobsen of the Farm Bureau said it comes down to keeping farmers in business.
“We’re obviously trying to make our exports more reliable, simply to preserve our livelihoods down here,” he said. “I do not believe this bill will have any detriment whatsoever on the salmon and overall fisheries in the delta. They’ve taken our water over the last decade and have shown no difference when it comes to species revival.”
The legislation would make major changes to the operation of California’s giant plumbing system, which takes water from rivers to provide it to people. Reverting to a more 20th century approach, it would prioritize water for farms and cities by rolling back efforts to compensate for the damage caused to fish and wildlife.
The bill would also renew dam-building in California by speeding reviews of projects that have been stalled for years because of their multibillion-dollar price tags and, by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates, limited ability to provide new water. Among the most popular are a project to raise Shasta Dam in Shasta County; build a dam behind a dam on the San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat, north of Fresno; and dam a dry valley near Colusa to capture Sacramento River water in a project called Sites Reservoir.
The dam section largely mimics a bill sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), that passed the House last month, and puts the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which builds and operates dams, in charge of environmental permitting, overriding the role now played by fish and wildlife agencies.
The legislation would also increase pumping from the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, reverting to pumping limits of more than two decades ago that led to severe fish declines. It would override Endangered Species Act protections for fish.
More than a third of the 134-page bill is devoted to gutting an effort to restore the San Joaquin River. The San Joaquin was dammed in 1942 just north of Fresno. Friant Dam is a keystone of the state’s water system, allowing cities and farms to thrive along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, but it dried up 60 miles of the river, destroying what had been the nation’s largest population of spring-run chinook salmon.
The restoration program, authorized by legislation Feinstein pushed through Congress in 2006 to implement a landmark court settlement, is an effort to work with farmers to re-establish fragments of the river’s original floodplain and recharge aquifers, as well as restore native fish, said Rene Henery, California science director for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group.
The House bill would ban the reintroduction of salmon, and “permanently dry up 60 miles of the river,” said Doug Obegi, a water lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which brought the original lawsuit to restore flows below the dam.
Jacobsen said restoring salmon to the river “has absolutely no chance of working” given the warming climate, and that the objective is “the replacement of the currently proposed salmon fishery with a warm-water fishery.”
Critics said that translates to a trickle of water to keep bass alive but the end of hopes to revive what they call a living river. “From a biological standpoint, there’s absolutely no reason salmon can’t live there” if the river were allowed to be restored, Henery said.
The legislation also weakens water rights for wildlife refuges in the valley, putting them behind farmers in drought years instead of on an equal footing. The state and federal wildlife refuges, along with some privately owned waterfowl tracts for duck hunters, are managed much like farms, contracting water deliveries from the Central Valley Project, California’s vast system of federal dams and canals. The bill would cut in half the money available to refuges to buy water.
San Joaquin Valley refuges are the largest block of remaining wetlands in the West, and about all that’s left of habitat for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and the plants and animals that once lived on the vast seasonal wetlands that covered the valley before the Gold Rush, said Ric Ortega, general manager of the Grasslands Water District in Merced County, the agency that provides water to wildlife refuges in the state.
“If you can think of an animal, it’s out here — everything from river otters to minks,” as well as endangered species such as the Western pond turtle, Ortega said. “All the raptors, songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, it’s a pretty remarkable public trust that we’ve been able to hold onto. But this type of legislation could really issue a death blow.”
Jeff Volberg, director of water law and policy for the California Waterfowl Association, a conservation group, said he has tried to get the attention of lawmakers about the importance of the refuges, but “there just isn’t sympathy in Congress in this particular delegation.”
In December, Feinstein struck a deal with McCarthy to loosen water restrictions on farmers, attaching the measure to a popular water infrastructure bill that passed around midnight on the final day of the last Congress. Feinstein described the deal as a way to forestall bigger demands from valley Republicans.
Jacobsen said last year’s bill was only a first, short-term step.
“This region can no longer sit by and stand there as legislative inaction cripples our industry,” he said, adding that it’s now up to Feinstein and Harris now to “show us your plan.”
Feinstein and Harris said the legislation “doesn’t even come close” to an agriculture-environmental balance and promised to fight it in the Senate.
The drought is over. Why are Republicans in Congress fighting for more water for farmers?
Ryan Sabalow And Dale Kasler
The drought may be over and Central Valley farmers are getting more water than they have in years, but that hasn’t stopped congressional Republicans from resurrecting a bill that would strip environmental protections for fish so more water can be funneled to agriculture.
The bill is likely to meet the same fate as others before it, despite farmers having a new ally in the White House and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. After passing the House of Representatives last week, the bill faces near-certain death in the Senate, where California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris still have the power to kill it. President Donald Trump, who vowed during a Fresno campaign stop last year to “open up the water” for farmers at the expense of fish, is likely to never see the bill cross his desk.
Nonetheless, the legislation by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, offers a window into the unrelenting mindset of California’s agricultural lobby as it seeks to secure water for well-funded farming groups.
Some version of Valadao’s bill has been introduced off and on since 2011 without success. And, last year, with Feinstein’s support, farmers succeeded in pushing through a controversial bill easing some of the environmental restrictions on pumping water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for delivery to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. Former President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
Farmers and their allies in Congress say that legislative victory, followed by a near-record-breaking rainy season, still weren’t enough. Although irrigation canals and reservoirs are swollen this year, growers argue that for far too long, a disproportionate share of California’s water has been allowed to wash out to the Pacific Ocean in what they argue is a failed bid to protect fish.
They want a regulatory overhaul that tips the scales back in their favor.
“This year is kind of an anomaly,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, which serves much of Fresno and Kings counties with supplies from the federal government’s Central Valley Project. “You just can’t keep your eye off the ball.”
Amaral’s farmers are getting 100 percent allocation this year from the federal government’s Central Valley Project, which delivers water to much of the Central Valley. But they got no CVP water in 2014 and 2015 and just a 5 percent allocation last year.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were suffering through zeroes, consecutive zeroes, and that’s still fresh in people’s minds,” Amaral said.
Valley farm groups aren’t shy about pressing their case in Washington. Westlands, for instance, spent a combined $1.3 million lobbying Congress and various federal agencies on water issues in 2015 and 2016, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Environmentalists say the Valadao bill would further devastate a crippled Central Valley river ecosystem, which has seen the endangered Delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmonnearly go extinct during the drought after decades in decline. Biologists attribute the fisheries’ collapse in large part to too much Central Valley river water being dammed, pumped and shunted into irrigation canals instead of being allowed to flow on a more natural course into the ocean.
Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bill is “pretty awful,” akin to the “eighth ring of hell” for California’s fish and wildlife.
Valadao’s HR 23, which passed the House earlier this month on a mostly party-line vote, overrides a quarter-century of state and federal protections for endangered fish, while fast-tracking reviews for several proposed controversial dams. A section of the bill is dedicated to killing a program that seeks to bring more flows to the San Joaquin River, where miles of river often dry up because of agricultural diversions and dams.
In many respects, the Valadao bill is an attempt to turn back the clock and substitute older, less restrictive environmental regulations on the Delta.
It would require that the Central Valley Project and State Water Project be operated under the rules set by the Bay-Delta Accord, a 1994 environmental agreement. That would countermand more stringent rules, imposed by the two federal agencies in charge of protecting salmon, smelt and other endangered species in the Delta, that have been in place since 2009. The bill also strips Central Valley wildlife refuges of critical water deliveries in dry years, according to conservation groups; and it shunts more water from the imperiled Klamath River watershed to Central Valley farmland.
The bill also would significantly rewrite the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which redirects 800,000 acre-feet of water each year to fish and the environment. For example, current law says the federal government has the option of reducing the amount of water allocated to fish if conditions are dry and farming districts south of the Delta aren’t getting their full allotment from the Central Valley Project. Valadao’s bill would make that a requirement, forcing the feds to cut the water available to fish by 25 percent if farmers are getting less than 75 percent of their regulation allocation.
“It addresses a lot of the frustrations that have occurred over the last 20 years or so,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “I know a lot of it sounds like it’s being stripped out, the environmental protection, but the things that are in place now aren’t working so we need to try something else.”
Perhaps the most controversial provision would tie California officials’ hands. State officials would be forbidden from imposing regulations “in order to conserve, enhance, recover or otherwise protect any species that is affected by the Central Valley Project or California State Water Project,” the bill says.
The bill “would preempt existing California environmental laws and regulations, giving the Trump administration greater control over water management in our state,” Feinstein and Harris said in a joint statement last week.
They added that the bill “prevents California from using new scientific data to manage our water supply by reverting us back to outdated limits set more than two decades ago.”
One of the bill’s strongest proponents, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, acknowledged HR 23 has almost no chance of making it through the Senate to Trump’s desk because of Feinstein and Harris’ opposition.
In an interview last week with conservative Fresno talk radio host Ray Appleton, Nunes said that to pass the Senate, Republicans would need support from eight Democrats – and that’s not going to happen.
“Right now, the odds are basically zero because ... the Democrats will not go against the home-state senators,” Nunes said. “So if Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Harris oppose the bill, no Democrats are going to vote for us right now.”
Obegi and other environmentalists, however, aren’t resting easy. Obegi said he’s worried that portions of Valadao’s bill may be inserted into “must-pass” legislation that could reach Trump’s desk.
And Nunes, a dairy farmer, says his friends in agriculture shouldn’t give up on trying to squeeze more water out of Congress. He urged farmers listening to the Fresno radio show to keep the pressure on.
“We have to get these folks that have all these high-paid lobbyists and consultants ... over to the Senate and say, ‘OK, you oppose the House bill? What’s your solution?’ ”