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California's Water Blockage

Dec 9, 2014
In The News

On Monday House Republicans debated a bill crafted in part by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and supported by Rep. Jim Costa that would provide a short-term salve to Californians south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The White House has threatened to veto the bill, which will be voted on Tuesday.

 

Ms. Feinstein disowned her ideas after environmental groups and Sen. Barbara Boxer expressed outrage at negotiating with Republicans. Thus dies another bipartisan solution to California’s water crisis.

 

According to a study in an American Geophysical Union journal, California is in the throes of the most severe drought in 12 centuries. Portable showers and jugs of water have been delivered to communities in the parched Central Valley, where more than 400,000 acres of farmland this year were left fallow.

 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that fresh fruit prices have increased 6.6% since October 2013 in part because of the drought. By the estimates of the University of California, Davis, the drought will cost the state $2.2 billion in economic output and 17,100 jobs. In September the unemployment rate was 9.7% in San Joaquin County and 9.5% in Fresno County.

 

Federal regulators are limiting water pumping south from the delta to protect salmon and smelt. This last winter, 1.8 million acre feet of water—enough to sustain 1.8 million families and irrigate about 450,000 acres of farmland—was flushed into San Francisco Bay. That’s in addition to 4.4 million acre-feet that are diverted annually to environmental uses including salmon restoration.

 

Water pumping is largely limited by federal agency “biological opinions” protecting endangered species, but regulators retain some discretion. Yet the Department of Interior is the rare Obama agency that refuses to use it.

 

Thus the House legislation would require regulators to operate the delta’s pumps toward the maximum range allowed by law “unless current scientific data indicate” that less “is necessary to avoid a negative impact on the long-term survival of the listed species.” Regulators then must cite data and explain the “connection between those data and the choice” to restrict pumping.

 

Recall that in January the White House threatened to veto, and Senators Boxer and Feinstein opposed, more aggressive House legislation to plug the water hole. Instead, the Senators urged federal agencies to “exercise their discretion in regulatory decision-making within the confines of the law to deliver more water to those whose health and livelihoods depend on it.”

 

Republicans then rewrote their bill and worked with Sen. Feinstein to pass legislation this year that would help capture some storm runoff during the relatively wet winter months. The bill would expire Sept. 30, 2016, by which time Republicans aim to negotiate a larger compromise with Democrats and the White House to solve the water woes.

 

Ms. Boxer now claims to oppose this stopgap because Republicans “deliberately left out important stakeholders”—namely, her and her green supporters who don’t seem to mind if the Central Valley reverts to its au-naturel state as a dust bowl.

 

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