CFBF president's message: One opportunity lost; one remains


Issue Date: December 3, 2014
By Paul Wenger
Paul Wenger

2014 will certainly be one for the record books. The drought will be the topic long remembered, but it's the issues resulting from the drought that will have the greatest implications for years to come.

While we were excited to see the water bond, Proposition 1, pass this November, the more sobering realization was the fact that it would likely not have passed had we not been experiencing a severe drought year, following two below-normal precipitation years.

Timing, as they say, is everything and the drought helped propel a nearly unanimous vote of our state Legislature to put on the ballot a bond that is truly about water resources and infrastructure. Unfortunately, it also propelled the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign two groundwater bills, which may have been well intended but fell short of recognizing the interrelationship between surface water supply and delivery and groundwater use, specifically that our groundwater problems occur chiefly because there's not enough surface water available.

While the Legislature was busy addressing water issues in Sacramento, several congressional representatives were meeting to discuss ways the federal government could do its part, through legislation, to provide relief to drought-stricken California. Reps. David Valadao, Devin Nunes, Jim Costa and Jeff Denham were in negotiations with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to develop a bipartisan bill that could address federal laws that constrained California's ability to take advantage of limited rainfall and snowmelt.

Through this federal legislation, we were hopeful that something would finally be accomplished to permit flexibility in laws such as the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, to allow our water resource agencies and managers the ability to effectively do their job in managing the scarce water resources Mother Nature has provided our state during the last three years. Therefore, we are greatly disappointed that negotiations were halted by Sen. Feinstein, ending any opportunity to see a vote on water legislation before the new Congress begins in 2015.

Sen. Feinstein has been meeting with Central Valley House members to negotiate issues that are complicated and controversial. We appreciate her efforts for taking on a task not popular with many in her party. She has had to battle an onslaught of attacks from environmental groups as well as from members of her own party who, it seems, eventually dissuaded her from proceeding with a compromise bill to be considered in the waning days of this Congress.

If Congress fails to pass legislation in the next week, we will lose the potential of the coming California rainy season and the ability to better store, manage and allocate water. There may be hope in the next Congress, where Senate committees that are important to the reform of blunt federal mandates such as the ESA and CWA will give much-needed water legislation a fair hearing.

Our hope is that future legislation will not be weighed down by other states wanting to "pile on" with their favorite issues. California's water crisis is a national crisis. Our state is the major domestic food producer for the entire country. The challenges California faces relative to water are like no others—and so are our opportunities.

The water bond will provide financial opportunities to improve many aspects of our state's outdated and neglected water infrastructure, but it is federal fiat that has prevented the wise management of much of our existing infrastructure.

In demanding that Sen. Feinstein halt her discussions on drought legislation, Sen. Boxer and Reps. George Miller, Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson said they will work together in the next Congress, and that negotiations should be based on science. That's all anyone has ever wanted. With the technology and the science we have today, we should be able to make better predictions for storing, releasing and allocating water for farms, the environment and other needs.

This winter will see a huge migration of waterfowl throughout California, and those birds will find limited areas to inhabit. Agriculture has historically provided significant wetlands for migratory birds, but the ESA has reduced water supplies and planted acreage to a point that wetlands area will be reduced this year. Federal wildlife officials have warned that that will lead to an increased potential for disease among migrating birds forced into close proximity, due to reductions in flooded fields.

Congress has fallen short in its attempt to address the impacts of drought this year, but there is no excuse next year. We applaud Reps. Valadao, Nunes, Costa and Denham for their tenacity in working to accomplish something to fix federal laws that choke our state's ability to manage our water resources. We understand Sen. Feinstein's dilemma but look to her to provide the leadership in the Senate during the next Congress to get something done, sooner rather than later.

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