House bill would ensure consistent water supply to Central Valley farmers

By Michael Clark - 15 Mar 2012 21:49:1 GMT
House bill would ensure consistent water supply to Central Valley farmers

San Joaquin Delta, California via Shutterstock

A peculiar bill, HR 1837, passed the House of Representatives on February 29, leaving proponents, mainly farmers, cheering and everyone else incredulous. The bill, sponsored by David Nunes (R - CA) and called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, would essentially do away with nearly a century of case and federal law, including the Endangered Species Act, to ensure farmers would receive a consistent future water supply. As per usual these days, the controversial bill passed along party lines: all Republicans, save for one, voted yea; all but ten democrats voted nea.

Water supply to the farmers in the valley has been inconsistent of late: drought and a limp snow pack have conspired to reduce water deliveries and a court order reduced water diversions from the San Joaquin Delta due to violations of the Endangered Species Act: in this case, the concern was the Delta smelt, a three inch bait fish, listed as endangered. Mr Nunes, in a 2009 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, characterized the court's decision thus: the court chose fish over farmers.

Farmers are overjoyed. The bill, they say, will ensure a consistent water supply by limiting the Endangered Species Act and the authority of state wildlife authorities to impose their will on the revitalization of the Delta. The farmers claim that this is the only way to ensure their federal contracts are met.

Opponents say the bill could severely damage the Delta ecology. Water utilities, whose water rights take precedence under state law, see this as an unfair water grab by the agricultural block. One water law expert was left 'incredulous', claiming, "This thing [the bill] should basically be entitled the 'San Joaquin Valley Farmers' Wish List'."

The bill would require that the US Bureau of Reclamation, who is responsible for water allocation from the Delta and Northern California rivers to farmers in the valleys, follow what's called the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord. The accord, which critics call insufficient, was a means by which the BOR allocated water between the Delta, farmers, and water utilities. Much has changed since then.

The extent of the problem is reflected in BOR's recent allocation decision. Each year BOR decides on water deliveries. This year, because of the slim snowpack and below average rainfall, BOR has limited water deliveries to the Central Valley Project: agricultural contractors will received only 30% of their contracted amount and municipal contractors will received only 75% of their contract. This, some say, is the reason why HR 1837 is needed. It's needed to save agriculture in the region, which was dealt a severe blow by the limiting of water diversions due to concerns to protect the Delta smelt under the Endangered Species Act.

The bill highlights a fundamental concern: states' rights. The bill, should it pass, would preempt state law and put the control of water supply in the Bay-Delta region squarely on the federal government; state agencies would be powerless. Interesting then that the bill is the brainchild of the party that so cherishes states' rights. Six states, along with the Western States Water Council, which represents 18 states, have written opposition letters.

The Obama administration is opposed as well. In a statement, the administration voiced its concerns. The bill could "unravel decades of work to forge consensus, solutions, and settlements that equitable address some of California's most complex water challenges." Obama's senior advisors, that statement concludes, would recommend that the President veto the bill should it reach his desk.

The bill is perhaps a harbinger of things to come. As water scarcity increases, balancing water needs amongst competing users - farmers, cities, the environment - will inevitably become more difficult and incendiary. In this case, the issue has been boiled down - perhaps oversimplified - to a matter of fish versus farmers. It's clear that the ham handed solutions outlined in the bill won't fly. It looks like the fish and farmers will need to conjure up a more reasonable solution. And fast: the destruction of both the Delta and farms is bad for everyone.

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