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After Years of Drama, Farmers Score a Big Win in California Water Battle

Dec 10, 2016
In The News

The California water bill now ready for the president's signature dramatically shifts 25 years of federal policy and culminates a long and fractious campaign born in the drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley.

A rough five years in the making, the $558 million bill approved by the Senate early Saturday morning steers more water to farmers, eases dam construction, and funds desalination and recycling projects. Its rocky road to the White House also proved a costly master class in political persistence and adroit maneuvering.

“I believe these provisions are both necessary, and will help our state,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, and their staffs, crafted the final water package, which the Senate approved on a 78-21 vote. They also made the hard-ball tactical choice to fold it into a widely popular infrastructure bill, which eased Senate passage while it left retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer fuming.

“I think it is absolutely a horrible process, a horrible rider,” Boxer said during floor debate Friday. “It’s going to result in pain and suffering among our fishing families.”

Boxer cited, in particular, California’s salmon industry, whose members fear the diversion of water will deplete rivers critical to salmon reproduction.

Boxer’s post-midnight vote against the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which included the approximately 98-page California bill, was likely to be the last of her 33-year congressional career. It was a sour ending for her long-time Senate partnership with Feinstein, with whom she’s amicably served since 1993.

Though ultimately futile, Boxer’s stand against the California water bill also foreshadows some of the big challenges ahead once the legislation takes effect. These include healing the rifts that have pit one region of the state against the other, managing the new Trump administration’s implementation of the law and coping with the inevitable litigation.

“It’s ugly, and it’s wrong, and it’s going to end up at the courthouse door,” Boxer predicted.

This year’s final California water package includes many elements, some of which are not especially controversial.

Non-native predatory fish in the Stanislaus River will be test-targeted for elimination. Money will support water recycling projects in cities such as Sacramento and San Luis Obispo, and to desalination projects like ones proposed for Southern California.

More controversially, the bill streamlines potential construction approval of Western water projects that could include Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. The bill’s funding includes $335 million for the water storage projects, which is only a fraction of their total cost.

With highly technical but important language, the bill also directs the pumping of more water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and seeks to ensure that Sacramento Valley farmers receive all of their allocated water.

“This water is for the tens of thousands of small farms that have gone bankrupt, like a melon farmer who sat in my office with tears in his eyes,” Feinstein said.

Boxer, echoing environmentalists, countered that the real beneficiary will be “big agribusiness.”

All sides agree the California water package marks the biggest federal shift in the state’s water use since the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which focused more on protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Farmers hated the CVPIA but, in a mirror image of this year’s water bill, it was included in a bigger package that rolled right over one of the state’s protesting senators.

The Republican senator who was left standing alone in fighting the 1992 bill, John Seymour, was subsequently defeated by Feinstein. One of the other big losers in that earlier legislative fight, the Westlands Water District, is among the victors in this year’s bill, after spending more than $1 million on lobbying in the last two years.

Other California water districts, farmer organizations and environmental groups poured resources into trying to shape the final bill. Feinstein stressed that she went through “dozens of versions” and consulted extensively with both the Obama administration and state officials to craft the legislation.

House Republicans, in turn, kept the pressure on by repeatedly passing more aggressive California water bills. These competing measures, led first in 2011 by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and then by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, kept presenting Feinstein with an issue that would not go away.

Last year, for instance, Feinstein and Boxer jointly introduced a 147-page Senate bill not long after the Republican-controlled House approved a 170-page bill along largely party lines. The competing bills helped frame the subsequent negotiations.

“My House and Senate colleagues and the people of the Valley have fought long and hard to get this legislation passed out of both chambers,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Saturday.

The fighting, at times, turned personal. Last year, Feinstein angrily accused a McCarthy staffer of trying to sneak ambitious California water language onto another must-pass bill, while California’s House Republicans united in an extraordinary denunciation of the state’s two senators for alleged inaction in the face of an emergency.

After the highly public finger-pointing, though, California’s deal-making senior senator and the state’s highest-ranking House member managed to quietly return to the bargaining table.