By Bartholomew Sullivan, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein told an Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee Tuesday that her comprehensive water bill would “produce real water” consistent with protections for endangered species.
Feinstein’s bill would invest $1.3 billion in long-term projects and would permit temporary adjustments in water movement south of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta for Central Valley farmers. The temporary provisions would last two years or until Gov. Jerry Brown declares the five-year drought over. It is opposed by several mainstream environmental groups.
“Despite this recent El Niño, California still faces severe drought,” Feinstein said. Pointing to a map showing parts of California in “abnormally dry,” “severe drought, and “exceptional drought” conditions, she said: “The sustained pressure of ‘exceptional drought’ … is alarming and illustrates California’s emergency situation.”
Other witnesses endorsed provisions of the bill, including Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, who called it a “good down payment on California’s drought resiliency.” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan Lopez said he was comfortable with its “moderate approach.”
But Laura Ziemer, senior counsel for Trout Unlimited, took exception to a provision she said would make it easier to raise the level of Shasta Dam. She said designating some sets of water users as higher priorities than others seemed likely to perpetuate rather than end the north vs. south “water wars.”
Dan Keppen, executive director of Family Farms Alliance in Klamath Falls, Oregon, told the panel that irrigation-agricultural producers support Feinstein’s bill but also back provisions approved last year by the House. He said the alliance supported the Senate bill’s provisions giving water managers greater flexibility and its call for studies of Delta smelt distribution and of the nonnative fish that prey on them.
The House version of a water bill passed in July in a form Feinstein said was never likely to pass the Senate, because it would violate environmental law regarding fish protection. In recent weeks, after filing her bill in February, she has called for an end to “dogmatic adherence to a rigid set of operating criteria” and called for increased pumping to the maximum extent allowed under the Endangered Species Act.
U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, backed the House measure and said he looks forward to House-Senate negotiations on a water bill.
“Although I don’t believe Sen. Feinstein’s bill will bring any significant improvements to the Valley water supply, I hope she succeeds in getting her bill passed in the Senate, since that would create an opportunity for the House and Senate to negotiate a compromise that could finally bring some relief to Valley families, farmers, and communities,” Nunes said in a statement Tuesday.
Feinstein’s fellow Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has been described as “agnostic” about the bill, said Tuesday that she has concerns.
“I like many of the provisions — including some that were from my ‘W21: Water in the 21st Century’ bill and some that were included in the new (water resources) bill,” Boxer said in a statement. “But I have concerns about some of the operations language. I am hopeful that I can work with Senator Feinstein and Senator (Maria) Cantwell (D-Wash.) to address those concerns.”
Feinstein’s bill calls for “real-time monitoring” of fish species in the Delta to identify opportunities to increase water pumping without violating environmental or endangered species laws as well as opportunities to decrease pumping to protect steelhead trout, Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. In her testimony, she said an example would be pumping during winter storms to get peak flows to storage areas.
The bill also calls for the Interior and Commerce departments to expand hatcheries and rebuild populations of the fish in both the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. Other provisions include calls for reclamation of wastewater, recycling and desalinization projects.
Feinstein was clear in pointing out that the short-term provisions of the bill, which deal exclusively with California issues, contain no operational mandates. The longer-term provisions, such as those involving storage project financing, would pertain to all 17 Western states.
After the hearing, Doug Obegi, the Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney in its water program, said several provisions affecting fish and the sport and commercial fishing industries were “objectionable from an environmental perspective.” He pointed to a letter to senators last week from American Rivers, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and others urging them to oppose the bill and its potential harm to fish and fishing jobs.
John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which opposes Feinstein’s bill, noted that the Pacific Fisheries Management Council did an analysis this month and concluded that the bill “authorizes weaker protections for salmon.” Golden Gate prefers an approach to the drought introduced last July by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, that McManus said would not harm salmon.