You get some of these boys too far from their mamas' cooking, put them in suits, give them some money and send them to Washington DC, and it's like they get Obstruction on the brain. First, being beloved-tools-for-a-season of San Joaquin Valley agribusiness, they develop the hubris required to imagine stopping the flows of whole rivers, damming, channeling, diverting flows for the greater good of fewer and fewer, larger and larger agricultural enterprises.
Once they've drunk that wine, obstruction of justice like throwing monkey wrenches into investigations from which they have been recused with some prejudice is duck soup.
Obstruction of justice is about the only thing his special interests understand.
Nunes and Valadao joke about Westlands’ water grab. We’re not laughing
BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Rep. Devin Nunes’ tweet was supposed to be funny, we guess.
The occasion was the passage of H.R. 23, carried by fellow San Joaquin Valley Republican, Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, although its authorship is clearly at issue.
The bill is the House Republicans’ latest attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s expense, and at the behest of the Westlands Water District, the sprawling irrigation district where some of the state’s wealthiest farmers tend their crops.
Upon the bill’s passage, Nunes tweeted a photo of five cupcakes, four of which were topped with fish-shaped gummy candies. Perhaps he ate the fifth or maybe he threw it away. Whatever the gummy’s fate, the Tulare politician’s tweet thanked Valadao “for sending this excellent gift: smelt-themed cupcakes.”
In the sheltered offices of Congress, where Republicans talk to Republicans about burdens imposed by environmental law on their donors, Nunes’ tweet must have been a hoot. We like a laugh as much as the next person, but forgive us for feeling as if Sacramento is the butt of this particular joke.
Here in the Sacramento River Valley, the environment matters. Some of us care that the Delta smelt, humble though it is, teeters near extinction. We worry about what that portends for other species that depend on the Delta.
Thanks to hard-nosed reporting by Lance Williams and Matt Smith of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, we now know that Westlands Water District officials and Westlands’ then-attorney, David L. Bernhardt, helped shape Valadao’s legislation.
In April, President Donald Trump nominated Bernhardt to be No. 2 in the U.S. Interior Department. The Senate has confirmed him over the objections of California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Harris, Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown have denounced Valadao’s bill.
“Commandeering our laws for purposes defined in Washington is not right,” Brown wrote in a July 10 letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, to no avail. Two days after Brown sent the letter, the House approved the bill on a near party-line vote. All 14 Republicans in California’s congressional delegation voted for it, as did Fresno Democrat Jim Costa.
Bernhardt was a partner in Westlands’ Washington, D.C., lobbying and law firm, Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Schreck, but assured senators in a confirmation hearing earlier this year that he had stopped lobbying for Westlands in November.
He may not have contacted legislators or members of the executive branch on Westlands’ behalf related to H.R. 23, the definition of lobbying. But Bernhardt, a lawyer, provided the district with legal advice on that bill and related issues up to the time of his nomination, according to emails cited by Reveal and obtained by Public Records Act requests by Patricia Schifferle. Schifferle, who opposes the tunnels, consults for the Planning and Conservation League.
Those emails detail the extent of Westlands’ involvement in the legislation. In an email dated Dec. 13, an aide to Valadao sent a draft of what became H.R. 23 to several insiders including Westlands officials, and asked for “any edits you would like us to make.”
The resulting legislation would roll back legal restrictions controlling water exports by more than 20 years, and preempt and override state environmental law. The legislation could give the U.S. Interior secretary greater power to big-foot California officials’ ability to allocate water for Central Valley farmers, in other words, Westlands.
Tom Birmingham, Westlands general manager, told an editorial board member that if the bill were approved, about a million more acre-feet of delta water would become available annually on average, on top of the roughly 4.9 million acre-feet exported now to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Westlands would gain about 30 percent more water, Birmingham estimated.
From Brown’s point of view, the timing of H.R. 23 could not be worse.
In the coming months, the governor hopes to gain approval of the major recipients of Delta water for the $15.5 billion twin tunnel project to divert water from the Sacramento River in the Delta 30 miles south to the massive pumps near Tracy.
The governor contends that the tunnels are not intended to export more Sacramento River water to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Rather, he and his scientists say, the tunnels would provide greater reliability of water exports, while enabling the state to improve the deteriorating Delta environment.
It’s a tough sell, under the best of circumstances.
As Brown told Ryan in the letter: “Undermining state law is especially unwise today as California, with input from all stakeholders, is poised to make its boldest water infrastructure investments in decades, updating an antiquated delta water conveyance, and adopting water-use efficiency targets.” It evidently didn’t matter to Ryan, and certainly not to Valadao and Nunes.
The U.S. Senate may not approve the Valadao-Westlands water bill over the objections of Feinstein and Harris, and the governor. But that H.R. 23 has cleared one house illustrates the greedy side of California’s water politics. It is unseemly, counterproductive and no laughing matter, not even in this age of Twitter.
Sinking Friant-Kern Canal has $500M problem
John Lindt, For the Times-Delta
The canal that helps bring food to tables across the world has a big problem — it's sinking.
Land subsidence along the Friant-Kern Canal in Tulare and Kern counties has increased in the past five years, according to Dan Vink, South Valley Water Authority executive director.
The sinking terrain, reported to be two to three feet — mostly along a 25-mile stretch, has already reduced the capacity of the key irrigation artery by 50 to 60 percent in some locations.
“It’s like a big dip, a bowl or depression in the land that has the effect of not allowing flows to the south,” Vink said. "The Bureau of Reclamation knows about it and estimates are it could be a $200 to $500 million problem.”
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Even if they had “that kind of money” and they hurry “it could take five years or longer to repair,” he added.
"Land subsidence, and especially impacts of that subsidence to the Friant-Kern Canal are a serious threat to the delivery of water supplies to farms and rural communities that rely on the canal for water deliveries," said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director, Tulare County Farm Bureau." It is a very important issue for the Bureau of Reclamation to address sooner than later.
Blattler said time is of the essence.
"Fixing the subsidence problems are only going to be more expensive and more dire the longer the Valley goes without proper maintenance, upkeep, and the ability to recharge the groundwater aquifer," she said. "Every year that environmental constraints reduce the amount of water flowing into our groundwater aquifer, the worse subsidence becomes, and the harder it will be to reverse it."
The canal is designed to carry 3,500 cubic-feet per second but flows have been restricted to 1,700 cubic-feet in places such as Deer Creek and Earlimart areas. Districts farther south are also dealing with the reduced flow.
The impact on farmers mimics a drought — not enough water available when they need it.
"Many of our growers rely on surface water deliveries from the Friant
water system, as well as municipalities," said Marilyn Kinoshita , Tulare County's ag commissioner.
What is a farmer to do?
Go back to pumping groundwater, Vink said.
However, it was vigorous pumping that has been blamed for land subsidence in the first place — both here and on the westside of the Valley, impacting the critical California Aqueduct, as well.
NASA mapped land subsidence and reported the rate has gotten a lot faster in the recent drought with a huge bowl seen in the Corcoran area.
Likewise, in the Dos Palos area, USGS measured a drop of nearly five feet from 1988 to 2013 effecting the Delta Mendota District.
Repairs to restore the capacity on the 126-mile Friant-Kern have been carried out several times over the years with the banks of the big canal raised in some places by six feet.
The canal irrigates about a million acres.
High Country News
U.S. House moves to streamline water projects
A controversial bill would weaken states’ control over water.
This July, California Republicans cheered when the Gaining Responsibility on Water (GROW) Act passed the U.S. House. Rep. David Valadao, a Central Valley Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation was necessary to “modernize” the state’s water policies following prolonged drought.
Specifically, Valadao wants to boost water deliveries to valley farms — which grow most of the country’s nuts among other crops — leaving less water in rivers to help threatened fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
That trade-off has environmentalists and Democrats calling the GROW Act a water grab and an attack on state and federal environmental protections. And it could have repercussions for the entire Delta system, which provides much of the state’s surface water supplies.
The bill, H.R. 23, would basically block or override several state water laws —contrary to conservatives’ often-stated goal of reducing the federal government’s role and giving states greater power to manage resources. “They are trying to pre-empt the state from managing its rivers to balance the benefits to the economy with the need to protect the environment,” says Doug Obegi, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The bill would override environmental rules set by California’s laboriously negotiated San Francisco Bay Delta Accord, an agreement meant to protect water quality in the Delta while guaranteeing reliable supplies for farms and cities. Instead, managers delivering water to the Central Valley would follow a less restrictive, temporary order from 1994 and do so “without regard to the Endangered Species Act.” That would prohibit the state from keeping water in the Sacramento or San Joaquin rivers solely to benefit chinook salmon, green sturgeon and delta smelt, all protected under the Endangered Species Act.
It would also repeal and replace the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement — a state-federal partnership to recover salmon — with a new farmer-friendly arrangement that allows irrigators to dry up a 60-mile stretch of the river, harming fish habitat. Overall, such measures to pre-empt state water laws are “huge and unprecedented,” says Brian Gray, an emeritus law professor now with the Public Policy Institute of California.
Outside California, the GROW Act would also fast-track permitting for new dams across the West. It would make the Bureau of Reclamation the lead agency for permitting all new water-storage projects on federal lands, and accelerate environmental review, even for complex projects with expansive effects on rivers, fish and wildlife. Environmental impact statements, which agencies complete to weigh project costs and impacts, often take years to finish, particularly if conservation groups or local governments file appeals or lawsuits. The act would require the review process to be completed within 13 months, effectively limiting critics’ ability to raise concerns.
Such expedited permitting would help water agencies like the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, whose plans for two large new reservoir projects have been under review since 2004. Chimney Hollow Reservoir, to be built on the eastern side of the Rockies, will store water diverted from the Colorado River to supply booming northern Colorado. It received federal approval this May — after 13 years of federal review that required numerous plan revisions to address potential environmental impacts. The district’s Northern Integrated Supply Project still awaits a final decision.
Northern Water hasn’t endorsed the GROW Act, but spokesman Brian Werner says that better agency coordination — between federal authorities and state fish and wildlife managers, for instance — and swifter decisions would help water suppliers address criticism in a more timely, less piecemeal way. Delays are also costly, particularly if construction costs rise, and leave water-needy towns in limbo.
In California, Central Valley water interests have proposed building a new dam on the San Joaquin and raising the height of Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River to increase water storage. Environmentalists worry that accelerated project reviews could make it difficult to identify and analyze overlooked impacts and raise public awareness, making project approvals more likely.
“Environmental reviews have become the scapegoat for the reason that we’re not building new dams,” Obegi says, noting that water conservation programs or efficiency upgrades can sometimes provide sufficient “new” water without altering the environment. “The reality is new dams largely don’t make sense economically, let alone ecologically.”
California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, have vowed to fight the GROW Act, opposing the effort to obstruct the state’s ability to manage water and the likely harm to Delta fishermen and the environment. Observers say Senate passage will be tough; similar provisions have stalled in previous years. But now, with the GOP controlling the House, Senate and the White House, congressional Republicans could turn the bill’s provisions into legislative riders to must-pass appropriations bills.
“I think the Republicans feel quite emboldened, and I think there’s a significant chance that (the GROW Act) could pass the Senate,” says Gray. “And I’d expect President Trump would happily sign it.”
Deflect and distract: Trying to slow the Russia investigation
First there was the president’s claim that his predecessor had wiretapped Trump Tower.
Then there were accusations that a top aide to former President Barack Obama had politicized intelligence about Donald Trump and others.
Now comes another in a series of rear guard actions by Republicans that critics say are designed to deflect and distract from the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling — possibly in coordination with the Trump campaign — in the 2016 presidential election, even as evidence mounts.
Several lawmakers involved in the investigations, former intelligence officers and ex-prosecutors all said that recent subpoenas to the FBI and Department of Justice issued by Rep. Devin Nunes were designed to cloud the facts and shift the direction of the inquiry.
“A charade,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is examining Russia’s role in the election.
“A political narrative at work rather than a serious congressional investigative effort,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, part of a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry into whether Trump and others tried to block the investigations and obstruct justice.
Speaker Paul Ryan called the ethics charges a “distraction” and said he supported House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ decision to step aside from leading the investigation into Russia's election interference.
Nunes, a Republican from California who served on Trump’s presidential transition team, is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. But he stepped aside from the panel’s Russia-Trump investigation earlier this year over allegations that he disclosed classified information related to the probe.
Nevertheless, Nunes subpoenaed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray last month seeking documents related to the so-called Trump “dossier” prepared during the campaign by an ex-British spy on behalf of Trump’s political opponents. Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said the chairman has the sole authority to issue subpoenas.
“Learning the extent to which intelligence community agencies relied upon and verified information from the Steele dossier is a vital task for the Intelligence Committee’s oversight responsibilities, and it’s hard to see why anyone would oppose the Committee taking action to find out the truth of the matter,” Langer said.
IT DOES SEEM TO ME THERE IS A MODUS OPERANDI AMONG THOSE WHO PREFER SEE THIS INVESTIGATION EITHER NOT GO FORWARD OR END MORE QUICKLY.
Former CIA Moscow Station Chief Steve Hall
The explosive report contains information alleging Trump’s involvement with Russia, which, if accurate, would appear to make him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Nunes wants to know how the dossier and the relationship of the author, former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, to the FBI, has influenced that agency’s own investigation, which is led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“I cannot fathom any practical reason why congressional investigators need that information,” said John Sipher, who spent three decades in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. “They know that the FBI will not want to share it. They also should know and trust that the FBI is doing serious and professional work, and don’t need to be second-guessed without reason. This appears to me to be a political tactic rather than a serious effort to learn the facts.”
Nunes’ move became public with a Sept. 1 letter he fired off threatening to hold Sessions and Wray in contempt and haul them before Congress because neither has so far responded to his demand for documents.
Although Langer said Nunes did not seek any other signatories, Rep. Michael Conaway, a Republican from Texas, who assumed the mantle of the investigation after Nunes ostensibly stepped away, said he supported them.
The subpoenas were a departure from form that committee Democrats say needlessly creates tension with the Justice Department. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat, has said that normally the committee doesn’t issue subpoenas until a party refuses to comply voluntarily.
The investigation into how Russia meddled in the election and whether it colluded with the Trump campaign has gained increasing momentum.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, spent several hours behind closed doors Thursday with Senate investigators to discuss a meeting he held in June 2016. It was arranged by an acquaintance who said the Russian government supported Trump and could provide damaging information about his rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Other attendees included the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; and several Russians, including an attorney and a lobbyist who had been a Soviet intelligence officer.
Trump has has been both dismissive and enraged by the ongoing investigations, calling them “fake news,” among other epithets. Yet he’s trafficked in the very thing for which he regularly berates the media.
In March, Trump accused Obama in a tweet of having Trump Tower wiretapped during the campaign: "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" His claim came on the heels of stories that didn’t help the president: the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, over possibly illegal contacts with Russians; and Session’s decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation because of his own contacts with Russians while he was a Trump adviser during the campaign.
Trump’s charge was debunked just last week by the Justice Department.
Also last spring, the president seized on Republican allegations that Susan Rice, Obama national security adviser, had wrongly “unmasked” during the presidential transition period the names of people around Trump who became ensnared in government eavesdropping of foreign officials. Since the Trump associates were not the targets, their names were excised from the intelligence reports, but top officials can ask that the names be “unmasked.”
Trump said, without offering any proof, that Rice may have committed a crime.
With concerns raised at the time about the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, Rice defenders said the Obama administration acted properly. She denied that she used the information for political purposes.
In July, after the Senate Intelligence panel met privately with Rice, the chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, said that Nunes was behind “the unmasking thing. Rice met in a closed session this past week with the House Intelligence Committee.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times in June, Nunes explained his continuing involvement this way: “Simply put, I’m still the chairman of the committee. The way to look into this is that I’m still read into everything, but ... I was going to set at least the Russia side of the investigation aside because I didn't want to be the face of this investigation. But everything else, I’m still in charge of. … Especially the unmasking.”
Following the wiretapping and unmasking claims, former CIA Moscow station chief Steve Hall said of the subpoenas, “It does seem to me there is a modus operandi among those who prefer see this investigation either not go forward or end more quickly.”
Still, the probes seem to be progressing. Facebook’s disclosure to congressional investigators this week that it sold $150,000 in ads, some of them pro-Trump or anti-Clinton, during the campaign to a Russian company tied to a “troll farm” — operatives who create social media accounts to distribute false and provocative information — added yet another piece to the head-scratching puzzle over Russia, Trump and the election.