Ag Today December 12, 2016

The big water bill and what you need to know about it


By Alex Breitler

Record Staff Writer
Posted Dec 9, 2016 at 6:00 PMUpdated Dec 9, 2016 at 6:37 PM


By now you’ve heard that California’s two longtime U.S. senators are seriously at odds over legislation to address the drought.

Who’s right? The dust devil is in the details.

Here are six themes from Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill,and why they matter.

  1. Turning up the pumps

Water from the Delta west of Stockton is pumped to cities and farms as far south as San Diego. At times, however, that pumping must be reduced to protect native fish that are hovering on the brink of extinction. This has frustrated water users south of the Delta who have seen severe cutbacks.

Today, the rules protecting Delta fish provide a range of possible pumping levels. Scientists confer and decide what the most appropriate amount of pumping is depending on where the fish are at any given time.

Feinstein’s bill requires the government to pump the “maximum quantity of water” allowed within that range, though at times, during big storms, the government would be allowed to pump even more.

The bill is loaded with caveats about the need to protect endangered species and continue complying with state and federal law. The pumps would not run at their maximum levels. And most of the new provisions in the entire 89-page bill would expire in five years.

Still, environmental groups view Feinstein’s proposal as a major threat.

“It is not harmless,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who fought the bill on the House floor this week. “It is a Congressional override of the scientific, peer-reviewed biological opinions that does great harm to the Endangered Species Act and sets a terrible precedent.”

  1. Water for sale

The bill also aims to make it easier for water districts with senior water rights – such as the Manteca-based South San Joaquin Irrigation District – to sell water to less fortunate regions that have seen their supplies from the Delta slashed.

South San Joaquin could release water down the Stanislaus River to the San Joaquin River and on into the Delta, where it would be pumped south to other users.

When the water is being transferred, however, the new rules would allow every drop flowing from the San Joaquin to be exported, which environmentalists fear could undermine the state of California’s ongoing effort to actually increase flows on the lower San Joaquin for the sake of fish.

  1. Predator watch

Delta anglers might not like this one.

Districts like South San Joaquin have long complained that nonnative fish such as striped bass are chomping down on native species, which, in turn, crimps water supplies.

Scientists have said that while stripers do eat native fish, eradicating them may cause unintended consequences. Still, Feinstein’s bill calls for a pilot project to study removing striped bass from the Stanislaus River using traps, weirs or electroshocking techniques.

Also, stripers no longer would be protected by a federal law that requires the doubling of certain populations of fish.

While they are not native to the Delta, stripers have lived in the estuary for more than a century and are a popular sportfish.

  1. Something for northerners

Significantly, Feinstein’s bill virtually guarantees certain water supplies for users in the Sacramento Valley, north of the Delta. Even in dry years they would often receive no less than 50 percent of their contracted amounts.

Voting in support of Feinstein’s bill on Thursday were House Democrats representing portions of the Sacramento Valley, including John Garamendi of Walnut Grove, who was sharply criticized by Delta interests for supporting a similar draft bill by Feinstein earlier this year.

  1. Beyond the drought

Feinstein said on the Senate floor Friday that the most important provisions in her bill deal with long-term water supply issues. The bill includes $30 million for desalination plants and $50 million for water recycling, though that’s significantly less funding than would have been available in the senator’s earlier proposal.

The new bill also would allocate $350 million for various water storage projects, though none are named specifically.

Critics have argued that the language allows the Secretary of the Interior to authorize dams and bypass Congress.

“This is not true,” Feinstein said. “The language gives Congress veto authority for any storage project. (The Bureau of Reclamation) will do the same rigorous studies it has always done.”

  1. Environmental needs

Finally, the bill includes $15 million to improve habitat for salmon on the Sacramento River and $3 million for Delta smelt studies. It also requires more rigorous monitoring of fish populations to help determine when the pumps pose a danger.

Feinstein said Friday that the bill also contains money to “eliminate” water hyacinth, though the invasive weed that has been such a thorn for Stockton likely cannot be entirely eradicated.

The bottom line

Exactly how much additional water her bill would make available from the Delta is unclear, though House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said Thursday it would be enough to provide 450,000 average families with a year’s supply.

In her remarks Friday, however, Feinstein emphasized agricultural needs, saying she was trying to help “tens of thousands of small farms” whose owners have struggled for lack of water in recent years.

“These water supplies,” she said, “are not for big corporate agriculture as some would have you think.”

Fellow Sen. Barbara Boxer has expressed vehement opposition, as has Rep. Jerry McNerney of Stockton, who argued Thursday that Feinstein’s bill – attached this week to a broader package that includes relief for victims of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. – “picks winners and losers.”

“It’s easy to sympathize, and I do, with the farmers south of the Delta,” McNerney said. “But we shouldn’t just pass problems from one region to another.