[env-trinity] Chronicle: Feinstein water plan eases flow to farmers
tstokely at att.net
Thu Feb 11 08:23:58 PST 2016
Feinstein water plan eases flow to farmers
BY CAROLYN LOCHHEADWASHINGTON — Amid record-high farm revenue and record-low salmon counts in California’s historic drought, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation Wednesday that would make it easier to move more water from rivers to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.The long-awaited 184-page bill follows the California Democrat’s failed negotiations last year with the powerful House Republicans who represent valley farming interests, and several years of failure by the state’s congressional delegation to shape a federal response to the four-year drought.In a nine-page press release, Feinstein said the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, a complex maze of giant plumbing that moves water from northern rivers through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to cities and farms in the arid south, was completed by the 1970s when California had just 16 million residents, compared with the 40 million who live there now.Her bill would update this system by providing $1.3 billion in federal funds for new reservoirs, water recycling, desalination and other investments, which, though expensive, are the least controversial aspects of her plan.‘Drought relief’ provisionsThe flash point is what she calls short-term provisions to offer “drought relief.”Farmers widely blame water cutbacks on what are called biological opinions issued in 2008 and 2009 to enforce the Endangered Species Act. The rules limit water deliveries to farmers in an effort to save the delta smelt, a tiny minnow, and native salmon. The rules already allow some flexibility in drought conditions, and this year and last, miscalculations by water officials left too little water in rivers, pushing several salmon species and a host of other native California fish to the edge of extinction.But in explaining her new drought-relief plan, Feinstein said better monitoring of fish and water conditions in the delta could permit higher pumping to farmers. The current biological opinions are several years old, she said, and “don’t reflect the most recent science.”She said federal environmental agencies have assured her that her legislation does not violate the Endangered Species Act.Jon Rosenfield, a fish biologist with the Bay Institute, an environmental group, said Feinstein is “completely incorrect” to say the biological opinions fail to reflect newer science.“Quite the contrary,” Rosen-field said. “New science continues to demonstrate that fish, wildlife and water quality benefit when more water moves through the delta,” and if anything, current protections are too weak. This year, only 3 percent of native salmon survived, an even lower count than the 5 percent that survived last year, because water managers diverted too much water to human uses, leaving rivers too hot and shallow for fish to survive.The new bill no longer lists Feinstein’s Democratic colleague from California, Sen. Barbara Boxer, as a co-sponsor. The bill has also picked up a new supporter, Rep. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove (Sacramento County), who served as an emissary from Northern California Democrats to Feinstein’s water negotiations with House Republicans last year.Boxer is noncommittalBoxer, whose support would be a key signal of Democratic backing, issued a noncommittal statement through her spokesman, thanking Feinstein for her effort and saying she looked forward “to getting feedback from all the major stakeholders.”Garamendi said the legislation would not lead to any more pumping than the current environmental restrictions allow. The bill “basically confirms and follows what fish and wildlife agencies have been doing for the last two years,” Garamendi said.Garamendi said it would be wrong to pin all the blame on water managers for the salmon’s plight. “It’s the drought. It is the demand on water both south and north of the delta and the fact that there’s very little water,” he said. “It’s a bad time for California, period, all of California. Certainly for the fish, certainly for water users up and down the state.”Farm groups welcomed the legislation. Johnny Amaral, a spokesman for the Westlands Water District, a San Joaquin farming powerhouse, said the pumping provisions would for the first time require water managers “to operate the system in a way that maximizes water supply. That doesn’t exist in current law.”Amaral said he hoped the Feinstein bill could clear the Senate quickly so that negotiations could start with House Republicans. He said that the two sides agree now that something has to be done and that both sides understand they have to compromise. “The question is how you thread the needle to get there,” Amaral said. “That’s what everybody will be watching.”Rep. Jared Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat who has battled Feinstein over water, dismissed as “absolute nonsense” the idea that Congress needs to micromanage how the biological opinions are implemented, but welcomed the new investments proposed by Feinstein.‘Simple modernization’Huffman said modernizing the protocol for operating dams so managers can use weather satellite data and climate models to tell them if big storms are coming is a better approach than following rigid 60-year-old rules that require water to be released on a certain date to protect against potential floods.“There’s a lot more water to be saved in that simple modernization, which is non-controversial, than there is in trying to compromise protections for species that are teetering on the brink of extinction in the delta,” Huffman said.Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. E-mail: clochhead at sfchronicle.com
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