Focus in water policy now shifts toward Washington

Issue Date: November 25, 2009
Kate Campbell

With the state Legislature having finished its work on a package of water legislation, analysts turn their attention to Washington, D.C., where a number of developments in coming weeks could affect both short- and long-term water supplies for California.

Before the end of winter, federal agencies may move forward on two projects to add flexibility to management of water flowing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and receive the first of two reports from the National Academy of Sciences on factors that affect the estuary's fish populations. At the same time, bills introduced in Congress aim to require a reconsideration of fish protection, known formally as "reconsultation," and to make permanent a new law that eases short-term water transfers.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said this month that the Obama administration is committed to funding and moving forward on construction of the Delta-Mendota Canal/California Aqueduct Intertie, with construction beginning as early as January. Known informally as the intertie, a proposed canal would connect federal and state water projects near the delta, allowing for improved movement of water between the two systems.

Salazar said permits for building the Two Gates Fish Protection Demonstration Project are being expedited, under the hope that building can start next year. The project would create temporary barriers in the delta to keep fish away from water project pumps.

The National Academy of Sciences agreed to review key questions about protecting both the delta ecosystem and the state's water supply. Salazar said the academy will deliver the first of two reports on the delta by March 15. It will discuss conflicting protections for salmon and delta smelt that restrict water deliveries, and review alternatives to merely shutting down the delta water transfer pumps.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar said Farm Bureau supports the intertie and Two Gates projects, and the review by the National Academy of Sciences.

"This review should provide a more comprehensive assessment of the challenges and potential solutions for the delta," he said.

"As California's water issues continue to play out on the federal level, we've supported proposals aimed at getting limited water resources to where they're needed, when they're needed," Mosebar said.

Farm Bureau also supports a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by three San Joaquin Valley members—Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and George Radanovich, R-Mariposa—that requires federal biological opinions for salmon and delta smelt to be reconsulted jointly and to evaluate all potential factors affecting the fish.

"The decision to focus solely on the export of water to the San Joaquin Valley (as the only cause for the decline of delta smelt) was a wrong and shortsighted decision," Costa said. "For the last 18 months, I have repeatedly said there is not one single cause for the decline in overall delta health or the decline in the fisheries."

He called shutting down the delta pumps a costly failure with no definable benefit toward improving species recovery. He said he wants to see legislation passed that will ensure all environmental factors are taken into account when dealing with species recovery, and "not simply put the blame on farmers, farmworkers and the farm communities in our valley" while simply focusing on species one at a time.

"I have consistently maintained that the pumps are not the problem," Cardoza said. "It's both unfair and illogical to blame our farmers for all of the environmental problems facing the delta ecosystem."

It's more likely, he said, that multiple factors contribute to the problem, including pollution and invasive species of predatory fish.

"For almost two years, we've seen environmentalists use questionable science and a tunnel-vision approach to understanding the delta ecosystem in an effort to curtail San Joaquin Valley agricultural production—something this legislation seeks to fix," Radanovich said. "The harsh realities of prioritizing the rights of fish above the rights of people have brought farmers to the brink of extinction during an already difficult economic environment."

This new bill was introduced this month and specifically requires the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to begin a reconsultation of the two biological opinions within 90 days, to consider the two opinions together, to analyze all factors affecting the smelt and salmon, and to quantify and rank those factors. It also requires the reconsultation to be completed within 90 days.

In September, the administration issued a memorandum of understanding among six federal agencies and announced its intent to develop a federal work plan of short-term strategies to help the delta ecosystem. Farm Bureau is providing input to this process, which is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 15.

Farm Bureau supported water-transfer language in an energy and water appropriations bill, to allow water to move more efficiently to areas of need throughout the state, Mosebar said.

Because this provision will sunset in two years, he said Farm Bureau also favors a permanent version, introduced by Costa and Cardoza, with companion legislation in the Senate co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

"There are many pieces to the puzzle and they're all moving at the same time in Congress and the administration, not to mention at the state level and in the courts," said Elisa Noble, CFBF public lands and natural resources director. "Farm Bureau is working to ensure the needs of farmers and ranchers are expressed in each of these venues as solutions are sought."

She said that at the federal level, Farm Bureau has judiciously supported proposals that work within the existing power structure to improve the water system in the short term, while keeping an eye towards longer-term storage and delivery improvements.

"We're also working with county Farm Bureaus to evaluate and support local projects that will contribute to greater flexibility in the water supply and delivery system," Noble said. "We're advocating adequate scientific analyses, in part to underscore the fallacies of Endangered Species Act implementation that protects species no matter the human or economic cost."

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

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