Senate Democrats Declare Water War
by NUNES STAFF
Last week, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing about the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act. The bill, which is co-authored by valley Republicans Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy, and Jeff Denham, generated strong opposition from Democrat lawmakers but has the backing of a re-invigorated Republican Conference and its leadership.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy made a rare appearance at the subcommittee hearing in support of the bill and reminded his colleagues that Governor Brown had declared an end to California’s drought. He continued that California’s snow-pack had reached 165% this year but that farmers would not get 100% of their water. “That’s like a company having its best profits ever but telling its employees they will only get 80% of their paycheck,” said McCarthy. “That’s unacceptable.”
Nunes and his allies are seeking to achieve several major changes to the management of California’s water infrastructure. Their plan includes the restoration of a bipartisan agreement known as the Bay-Delta Accord. It also revamps the San Joaquin River restoration, replacing it with an economically responsible and environmentally feasible fishery— saving taxpayers a billion dollars.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), who had touted the Delta Accord as a model agreement in the 1990s, shifted position dramatically and equated it as a declaration of war with no hope of Senate passage. Shortly after the hearing, California’s Senior Senator Dianne Feinstein told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I strongly oppose this bill, which I believe is dramatic overkill."
During his opening statement, Garemendi decried the bill’s pre-emption of state law saying “this little piece of genius” would end collaboration between state and federal water projects. The bill “makes it virtually impossible,” he said. Westlands representative Tom Birmingham took aim at Garamendi’s interpretation of the bill and corrected him on historic and current operation of the projects. Federal law already pre-empts state law concerning project operations on the Trinity, he reminded the committee, and there was no similar outrage when that pre-emption occurred.
When asked about opposition from Senate Democrats, Nunes said he was disappointed but not surprised. “This is a declaration of war on the only meaningful plan before Congress to solve the San Joaquin Valley water crisis.” Nunes continued that if “California’s senators would change their tune if Congress imposed a 70% reduction on deliveries from Hetch Hetchy. Senator Feinstein would no doubt be happy to hand the City of San Francisco’s water over unconditionally since she thinks it will save the Delta.”
Feinstein transmitted her official opposition to the bill just days after attending a fundraiser at Harris Ranch, which is located in the San Joaquin Valley—only miles from water starved farmland. According to those in attendance, Feinstein committed to working on a solution. “I don’t see how anyone with valley interests in mind can trust them, which is why I have been talking to Senate Republicans,” said Nunes.
Nunes also sought to remind critics that there are many options on the table to gain passage of legislation and that he would be leveraging all of them to aid the San Joaquin Valley. This will undoubtedly keep the bill’s opponents on their toes. House Appropriators have already stripped funding for the San Joaquin River Settlement from the federal budget, a major blow to the plan which is already off schedule and underfunded.
Once lawmakers had completed their opening remarks, testimony was received from local water districts, as well as state and federal representatives. Obama and Brown Administration officials opposed the bill, maintaining their view that the Delta pumps were damaging the ecosystem, impacting a number of species including the smelt, salmon and killer whale. Administration officials also touted the importance of current policies, which they described as balanced, to protect the Delta ecosystem.
Advocates of H.R. 1837 were quick to note, however, that no new evidence was provided to support these conclusions. The disclosure of scientific evidence to support pumping restrictions was made necessary by a U.S. District Court ruling in May. The court determined that the government had failed to base its decisions on science and sent regulators back to the drawing table.
Kole Upton, a Madera farmer and former San Joaquin River Settlement negotiator, rejected Interior’s testimony that current policies were balanced and called for the replacement of the current river restoration plan as envisioned by H.R. 1837. Upton explained that farmers were being subject to a slow death due to water diversions and that broken promises related to the San Joaquin river deal convinced him to seek changes.
The Kern County Water Agency also offered testimony, indicating that H.R. 1837 would restore stability to the Delta and improve water supplies. The agency’s representative, James Beck, said that all water contractors, state and federal, would be protected under the proposed law— supporting Nunes’ contention that his goal is not to harm any water contractors. This testimony undermined one of the key arguments made by bill opponents, which suggest that a small minority would benefit under the bill.
When asked about the allegation that his bill would come at the expense of other water contractors and the environment, Nunes was dismissive. “They are attempting to deceive the public which is the only way they can survive. They think they can obstruct this legislation by dividing California’s embattled water districts and hiding their own financial interests. It won’t work.”
Nunes then described an alliance of convenience between environmental activists, a small number of Delta farmers and salmon fishermen, indicating that each will likely be represented at an additional hearing called by committee Democrats who are attempting to slow passage of the bill. “They have all benefited from the status quo. Delta farmers have been able to hide from reality on their islands, fishermen have filled their pockets with tax dollars, and radical environmentalists have assumed greater control over the state’s water,” said Nunes.
Delta farmers may fear the upending of current water management policies because those policies have to-date placed the financial and operational burdens for Delta restoration on others – primarily south of Delta water contractors. Under current law, little attention has been paid to this small but vocal group of farmers who enjoy unlimited access to the Delta’s fresh water supplies. During panel questioning, Rep. Jeff Denham underscored the uneven burden placed on water contractors by pointing out that San Francisco secures its water via pipeline from Hetch Hetchy, completely bypassing the Delta. This has allowed Bay Area activists to escape the consequences of their actions while forcing others to make sacrifices.
Similarly, elements of the west’s small sport and commercial salmon fishing industries have benefited from the status quo. The 1,722 permit holding fishermen collected hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars from 2007-2009. Nunes calls this money a payoff for their environmental activism, which was enacted under Democratic supermajorities. Several recipients made out with more than half a million dollars, with 213 fishermen walking away with six figure checks. And while some have claimed that the industry is 100% unemployed, regulators documented deliveries of sardine, mackerel, anchovy, squid and other species, effectively refuting the allegation that salmon fishermen are unable to work.
Nunes says that despite controversy generated by these groups, House leaders remain unfazed. A markup and full House consideration will likely follow this summer. Meanwhile, San Joaquin Valley residents have benefited from significant exposure beyond the greater Central Valley. The region’s water crisis has been highlighted nationally and is followed by the Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity and others. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal opined that Central Valley farmers are California’s new endangered species. This prognosis may change if House Republicans succeed.