House committee reviews state's drought crisis

Issue Date: April 8, 2009
Kate Campbell

With California's water crisis deepening, Congress held a hearing last week to assess actions by federal and state agencies responding to the emergency. In addition to hearing from a panel of government officials, the House Natural Resources Committee took testimony from a group of California congressmen.

Joining the panel of lawmakers, Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida pointed out that while California is experiencing its third year of below average precipitation, this fact alone is not the cause of the state's water crisis.

Like most of those testifying, Ishida blamed federal court decisions related to the Endangered Species Act for limiting water transfers to the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP) to protect the delta smelt.

"This fact has put stress on our surface water providers, increased the over drafting of our underground water aquifers, caused massive economic losses and emotional stress for all of our residents who are dependent upon this water supply," Ishida said.

Since passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in 1992, he said California has redirected more than 3 million acre-feet of water that used to serve farms and cities to support fisheries and habitat.

"We have also invested more than $1.5 billion in these environmental purposes," he told the committee. "The result has been a continuing decline in the delta fishery."

Prior to 1992, he testified that roughly 85 percent of California's applied water supply was used for agriculture with the balance going to urban and industrial uses. Today, agriculture accounts for only 41 percent, urban uses for 11 percent, and the largest share, 48 percent, is devoted to these newly defined environmental purposes.

Westlands Water District gave up more than 800,000 acre-feet of water for the environment following the passage of CVPIA.

"This was supposed to be the extent of their contribution to restore the environment," Ishida said, with promises made to restore some of their losses through the now defunct Cal-Fed process.

"Today Westlands Water District has a zero allocation of water from the CVP and will have to idle approximately 300,000 acres," he said. "The surrounding cities are experiencing unemployment rates as high as 40 percent."

Noting that the House of Representatives last week passed legislation that will fund the San Joaquin River Settlement, he said that, as a Friant water user, "I am concerned we will face the same fate as the Westlands water users when this law is implemented."

The problem is not the courts or the judges, Ishida said. "The problem is that the ESA and CVPIA have become a primary source of money to fund extreme environmental groups, who use these laws to lower the quality of life for our residents.

"I believe that this hearing was called to help formulate a solution to drought issues we are facing nationwide," he said. "I am asking for your help on behalf of the citizens of our great country to review the ESA and to remove all of the unnecessary regulatory road blocks that result in endless litigation which prevents us from solving our water issues.

"Green economy, renewable energy, smart growth planning and clean air are noble goals, but they are empty programs if we cannot supply our citizens with water."

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, stressed in his testimony that California's population has almost doubled since the last dam was constructed in the state, and it is expected to double again during the next 30 years.

"We need the administration's leadership in working with the state on long-term solutions for California's water future, including constructing more storage facilities, improved conveyance and a more sustainable management of the delta."

With unemployment soaring in his district and home foreclosures and business failures at historic levels, he said thousands of families were moving out of his district, calling the situation a "Dust Bowl migration in reverse."

Urging emergency legislation that would allow turning on the delta pumps in the face of the crisis, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said the unemployment rate in his district is nearly 20 percent and is nearing 50 percent in some communities.

"We're not asking for a billion-dollar bailout. We aren't even asking for one single dollar," Nunes said. "All we need is for this committee to move emergency legislation which would allow the delta pumps to return to historic export levels.

"We cannot recycle our way out of a drought when there is no water to recycle," he said. "The solutions to this drought are clear. In the short term, we must turn the delta pumps back on and start pumping the water to the communities, water users and farmers who need it most."

Rep. George Radanovich, R-Fresno, said he has introduced legislation specifically to address problems with the current drought by temporarily removing ESA restrictions on the delta pumps during the emergency.

"The long-term solutions to the problems in the delta are alternative conveyance and storage," he told the committee. "We must take action now on building the necessary infrastructure so in the future California will not have to face the devastating situation we are in now.

"It's time to move forward on solutions for a reliable, effective way to move water around the delta, while protecting the estuary. If there had been the foresight 20 years ago, we would not be sitting here today."

He said this year the state will deliver only 20 percent of the water typically allocated for cities and farms. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP said it will deliver zero water to farms south of the delta this year. Farmers north of the delta can expect to get just 5 percent of their contracted amount.

"I must point out that this is the first prolonged drought that we have experienced since enactment of the CVPIA law and it is obviously showing some unsustainable weaknesses," said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico.

In Tehama County, he said the "regulatory drought" will require that the Red Bluff Diversion Dam cease operating as an efficient, gravity-fed diversion. He said it will need to be replaced with a power-driven, screened pumping plant to provide irrigation water to 150,000 acres of agriculture.

During the hearing, lead by Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk, government officials were asked about the progress of the joint state and federal drought action team. J. William McDonald, acting commissioner for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the team will work to maximize aid to drought-stricken communities and direct the appropriate departmental agencies and bureaus to work with the state's drought response team.

He said that the action team was meeting for the first time last week, but that preliminary work was already under way.

In his testimony, he said: "The Interior bureaus and our land management partners are preparing to deal with the potential for widespread and intense fires in California this year as a result of multiple successive years of drought."

California Natural Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman told the committee: "Each year, and especially in drought years, the acute tension between the environmental and economic uses of water generates lengthy, time-consuming, and expensive controversy in the form of protracted process and litigation."

He said there needs to be an investment in a long-term solution that includes "robust ecosystem restoration, increased water conservation, regional water investment, increased water storage, and a change in the manner in which we convey water across the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"This is the only way we can ultimately hope to end the constant struggle of economy versus environment," Chrisman stressed. "There is enough water for both to be healthy, but in order to ensure adequate supplies for both, we must invest in the long-term solution."

Archived video of the hearing and written testimony are available online at Click on "Hearings and Markups."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.