April 17, 2014

Our View: Dianne Feinstein’s California water bill flows to the money

Water flows uphill ... toward money. That’s as true now as it was the first time it was uttered by some now unknown cynic. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is proving it.

Water flows uphill ... toward money. That’s as true now as it was the first time it was uttered by some now unknown cynic. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is proving it.

Our senior senator introduced a drought-relief bill in February that included $300 million for conservation and efficiency measures, aid to low-income farmworkers who are indisputably being harmed by the drought, new tools to help farmers weather this dry year and emergency projects to help ensure the safety of drinking water in poor San Joaquin Valley communities. These were noble goals, especially considering that no such provisions were included in the bill the House passed – which was nothing more than an old-fashioned water grab.

So it was disappointing when the $300 million for those efforts was stripped out of Feinstein’s bill in an effort to get support from Republican senators.

What didn’t get stripped out, though, were two provisions that will help those who are a great deal better off than farmworkers or thirsty kids in poor farming towns. The provisions would empower the federal government to take more water out of the Delta and send it to the Westlands Water District, where billionaire power couple Stewart and Lynda Resnick grow nuts on their vast holdings called Paramount Farms. It’s hardly a surprise. From 2011 to 2013, Westlands spent $600,000 lobbying in Washington, D.C., and the Resnicks donated nearly $321,000 to federal candidates, political action and party committees, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and Southern California Public Radio.

The two provisions left in Feinstein’s bill could lead to federal micromanagement of pumping operations in the Delta, rather than allowing for real-time decisions that attempt to balance farming, fisheries and environmental interests. One would lock in a specific inflow-export ratio to allow more water transfers to contractors south of the Delta from April 1 through May 31, regardless of water availability. This, of course, is the time that salmon are migrating to the ocean. Allowing agency experts to change the ratio depending on real-time water availability and fish movement would make this more palatable.

The other provision talks about complying with endangered species law for some fish (not salmon and steelhead), which are on their way to extinction. Feinstein has said her goal is to protect fisheries. She should make that clear in the legislation, and she should make sure that the greatest efforts are expended where they have the greatest chance for success.

Laws already allow for flexibility in dry years – and we urge state agencies to be as generous as possible in allocating water to farms south of the Delta. We also support the increased diversions announced by state and federal officials on April 1. No one wants or can afford to see the Delta ruined by even more pumping, allowing for greater saltwater incursion.

In the past, Feinstein has said it is important to avoid seeking “gains for certain water users at the expense of others” or abandoning “fundamental state and federal environmental laws.” Fixing those two provisions would make her actions match her words. Otherwise, it just looks like she’s going to bat for Westlands and the Resnicks.

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