Mike Dunbar

Rain can’t extinguish hot talk about water

It used to be that when it rained, concerns about drought began to dry up. But this drought is so severe that those who want part of the state’s limited water supply are still working furiously to get it. The battle was waged on two fronts last week.

Trickle-down drought relief

We thought the federal drought-relief bill was dead last month when Sen. Dianne Feinstein walked away from negotiations as editorial pages – including The Modesto Bee – decried secret negotiations. Editorial writers were dismayed that representatives of Westlands Water District were at the table while elected representatives from Northern California were excluded.

But the bill is vitally important to powerful farming companies and water districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, so it has been reborn. The new version, written in dense language only water lawyers could love, will help some of the largest farming companies in California get enough water to keep their trees and other crops alive. But it is undoubtedly true that some of the benefits will also trickle down to those who own stores, provide services to farmers and work in the fields and orchards.

Those benefits can’t be dismissed as unimportant.

And the bill is no longer secret. House Bill 5781 even has one Democratic sponsor, Jim Costa of Fresno, along with Devin Nunes of Tulare, Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and other Valley Republicans. The bill would approve limited suspension of some environmental protections in order to send more water south.

Even as backers insist there is nothing in all that dense language for environmentalists to fear, they have invoked a procedure that won’t allow the bill to be amended or debated on the floor. That gives everyone – especially activists who have worked hard to get water for wildlife refuges and endangered fish populations – real heartburn. They don’t trust those who wrote the bill to keep their word that its main goal is to save farms and not to gut environmental protections.

Meanwhile, conservative legislators fear environmentalists will remain intransigent – blithely demanding more water than farmers can afford to lose.

Former Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza is now a lobbyist. He’s deeply involved in the negotiations and blames the earlier secrecy and no-debate procedures on Washington’s poisoned atmosphere. “Congress isn’t working as it was designed right now,” he said.

He wants the bill to pass, noting that it expires in 2016. If it rains, Gov. Jerry Brown could declare the drought over and the bill would end. Both provisions are appealing.

Fears that water from the Tuolumne and Merced rivers will be used to help flush the Delta as more Sacramento River water is siphoned south, said Cardoza, are unfounded. But there is language to expedite water transfers, and that gives us pause considering that Westlands already wants to pay Oakdale farmers to fallow their land.

Sen. Feinstein told The Sacramento Bee she prefers to wait until January to resume negotiations. Sen. Barbara Boxer fears this bill will “reignite California’s water wars.”

It’s raining. This bill can wait until the entire Congress has a chance to offer improvements.

Battle lines being drawn

The disconnect between environmentalists and the people who live closest to the rivers was clear during the Instream Flow Workshop put on by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy in Sacramento on Tuesday. Four speakers discussed the amount of water that should be left in the rivers to fulfill environmental mandates.

Linda Sheehan is executive director of the Earth Law Center. She’s a lawyer and a scientist and undoubtedly brilliant. Sheehan believes it’s necessary to allow 60 percent of a river’s total flow to go out to the Delta. She scoffed at the state’s plan to demand only 35 percent of the Tuolumne (though she didn’t name the river) and cited court cases that equate flow to quality – signaling her organization’s willingness to sue if the state doesn’t demand higher flows.

Even 35 percent would be double the Tuolumne’s current outflow and would devastate our region.

Sheehan noted the demise of coho salmon on Redwood Creek in Marin County. In trouble last year, there were no salmon in the creek this year. A tragedy.

She didn’t mention, though, that a few years ago environmental organizations restructured the lagoon at the mouth of Redwood Creek, at a cost of $15 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The coho would thrive, the organizations insisted. So is the tragedy of a “zero population” due to upstream issues, or to people who believed they knew how to “fix” the downstream ecosystem?

We don’t believe Sheehan has the answer to that question or to how much water should be diverted from our rivers.