WASHINGTON — California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer issued emergency drought legislation Tuesday ahead of President Obama’s planned visit to Fresno, as Democrats scrambled to counter GOP claims that trying to save rivers and fish amid California’s historic drought is destroying the nation’s chief source of fruits and vegetables.
The move by the two California Democrats greatly increases chances that Congress will pass something to get more water to Central Valley farmers.
With as much as a half million acres of the nation’s richest farmland in danger of going fallow, the bill also reflects the political difficulties Democrats face in defending wildlife and rivers as the drought inflames decades-old partisan conflicts pitting the environment against agriculture. Obama’s visit is a sign of the political stakes, already elevated by House Speaker John Boehner’s stop last month at a bare field near Bakersfield where the Ohio Republican expressed astonishment at putting fish before people.
The Senate legislation, co-sponsored by Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, would speed environmental reviews of water projects and give state and federal officials “operational flexibility” to move water south from the San Francisco Bay delta to San Joaquin Valley farms.
The bill also authorizes $300 million in federal funding for emergency aid and drought-relief projects such as upgrading city water systems, emergency water conservation aid to farmers and federal projects to increase water supplies. Migrant farm workers would also get emergency aid.
The House passed a bill last week sponsored by three Central Valley Republicans that would permanently reallocate water from the San Francisco Bay delta and permanently halt efforts to reconnect the San Joaquin River to the Pacific Ocean. Fresno Democrat Jim Costa voted for the GOP bill, but on Tuesday introduced a House version of the Feinstein-Boxer legislation.
Criticized by Northern California Democrats in the past for trying to move delta water to San Joaquin Valley farmers, Feinstein said the bill “primes federal agencies to make the best use of any additional rain.” Boxer, considered a strong ally of environmental groups, emphasized that the bill requires agencies to use their existing powers, rather than overriding any laws. In a shot at Republicans, Boxer said the bill is intended to “bring us together to address this crisis, rather than divide us.”
The bill brought immediate applause from California’s farm groups, who urged speedy passage and a quick negotiation with the House.
Environmentalist groups reacted with muted relief that Feinstein and Boxer did not call for overriding the Endangered Species Act and federal and state water laws, as the House bill would do. But they expressed fear that its emphasis on getting water to the Central Valley would ultimately come at the expense of Northern California’s salmon runs and the overall health of the delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas.
“The impacts of these changes on the delta estuary and San Francisco Bay and the economic engines these watersheds support will be felt for years, not only due to the drought but also due to the changes in federal law being proposed and the emphasis on exports,” said Patricia Schifferle, director of Pacific Advocates, a resource consulting firm.
Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, which represents farmers who supply half the country’s fruits and vegetables, said the bill would require that federal agencies “act with a sense of urgency and be as flexible as the law allows in order to minimize water supply reductions” that result from environmental regulations.
The California Farm Bureau president Paul Wenger also cheered the bill and called for immediate expansion of reservoirs and groundwater storage, and saying California’s water system has been “stretched beyond its limits by population growth, environmental requirements, climate change and other forces.”
The House bill was fiercely resisted by Bay Area Democrats, who denounced it as a blatant water grab. Rendered all but helpless in the GOP-controlled House, they had no power to stop it, or even amend it. They had no immediate official reaction to the Feinstein-Boxer bill, but aides described it as a positive step. Bay Area Democrats rely heavily on California’s Senators to block House GOP bills and protect Bay Area interests in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The key sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, praised the Senate action, saying that if it passes it will “finally provide a basis for the House and Senate to negotiate an action plan to bring Californians relief from this man-made water crisis.”
That negotiation between a House bill that overrides environmental laws, and a Senate bill that tweaks the application of those rules in favor of farms, has environmental groups worried.
“That’s what we’re nervous about more than anything,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, an environmental group. “If this goes to conference with the House bil, we’re nervous about what would come out at the other end.”
Barrigan-Parrilla said she cannot imagine that Feinstein, a key mover behind ensuring the restoration of the San Joaquin River, would allow that to be halted, but she said she is “still very fearful that it would crank up the pumping to really unsustainable levels.”
In a drought as deep as this one, “Everybody gets less,” said Kate Poole, at staff attorney in San Francisco for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s pretty much how the system is designed. Almost all environmental laws are written so that the protections are much less in dry years because there’s just not enough water to go around. Farms get less, cities get less, the environment gets less. What we don’t want to do is push the burden unfairly onto one set of users.”
Boxer and Feinstein sought to corral Senate votes by emphasizing that the drought relief could apply to all affected Western states, as well as states suffering local droughts, such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and others.
By Carolyn Lochhead
c.2014 Hearst Newspapers