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Commentary: Drought-bill coverage reflects regional differences

Issue Date: December 14, 2016
By Dave Kranz
Dave Kranz
San Luis Reservoir stood at 10 percent of capacity when this photo was taken in July. The reservoir holds water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for both federal and state water projects. Legislation passed by Congress aims to ease certain restrictions on delta pumping.
Photo/Dave Kranz

The parallels are striking: Significant California water legislation is folded into a larger bill, passed by Congress over the objections of one of its senators and sent to a president near the end of his term.

In 2016, the legislation is the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which gained final approval from Congress late last week despite a filibuster threat and "no" vote from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Provisions intended for California drought relief were inserted into a larger water-infrastructure bill that passed both houses of Congress by wide margins, to be sent to President Obama in the final weeks of his term. (See story.)

In 1992, it was the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which was attached to a larger Western reclamation bill and passed over the objections of Sen. John Seymour, R-Calif. It was sent to President George H.W. Bush, who signed the bill days before the presidential election he ultimately lost to Bill Clinton.

The CVPIA, sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., reallocated 800,000 acre-feet of Central Valley Project water to fish and wildlife, and made additional environmental requirements.

At the time, the California Farm Bureau Federation, other farm organizations and individual farmers warned the bill would lead to reduced water deliveries for farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in the CVP service area, especially during drought years—predictions that turned out to be accurate, as farmers have seen all too often.

With the tables seemingly turned this year, environmentalists and their allies in Congress—and sympathetic newspaper editorial boards—have criticized the WIIN bill as a "poison pill" within larger legislation. If any of them are aware of the parallel history of the CVPIA, they haven't mentioned it. And, of course, the WIIN Act would restore only part of the water redirected to fish by CVPIA and subsequent actions.

In all the coverage of the 2016 drought legislation I have read, only one source—the McClatchy News Service and its Washington, D.C., correspondent, Michael Doyle—has noted the parallels between the CVPIA and this year's WIIN Act.

Much of the other coverage has reflected regional differences in how California water policy is viewed, with coastal news sources judging the WIIN bill harshly while Central Valley publications approached it more positively.

The headlines often tell the story. After the House passed the WIIN Act last Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined its story, "House OKs bill to increase pumping from state rivers; fish at risk."

On its editorial page, the Chronicle noted the differences of opinion between the drought package's sponsors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and its opponents about what the measure will actually do. But the editorial described the drought bill as "a midnight rider" meant to benefit one interest—agriculture—more than others.

The San Jose Mercury News accused Feinstein of "selling out the delta" with legislation that would "gut environmental protections and have devastating long-term effects."

The Los Angeles Times called the drought language "unacceptable," though noting it might have been worthwhile had it been attached to some type of "grand bargain between the various factions to end the long-running California water wars."

Inland, the tone was more measured. The Sacramento Bee opined that the bill "may not be as dire as some environmentalists say," and called some of its provisions "praiseworthy." But the Bee added it expects the bill to result in damage to the environment while failing to end California's water wars.

On the other hand, its sister newspaper, the Fresno Bee, criticized Sen. Boxer, saying she had "paid scant attention to the needs of the San Joaquin Valley throughout her 24 years in office." Viewing the drought package through a very different lens than writers for coastal publications, the Fresno newspaper described it as "a worthy effort that reflects years of negotiations and compromises by many interests."

The drought legislation will not have the severe impacts on the environment that critics have predicted, the Fresno Bee said: "The bill simply provides operational flexibility to move and store water from big winter storms instead of allowing that water to flow to the ocean."

The Modesto Bee took a similar editorial stance, saying the drought legislation "will have profound positive impacts on our valley while preventing an assault on environmental-movement priorities."

If politics is about compromise, the Modesto paper said, "we believe this is a good one."

The Modesto editorial linked the drought provisions in the federal legislation to the current efforts by state regulators to require more flow in the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries—requirements that could cause severe economic consequences in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

"More than anything, we appreciate that human needs have been given weight" in the federal legislation, the Modesto Bee said.

Twenty-four years after the CVPIA swung California water policy in one direction, the WIIN act has returned the pendulum a bit closer to the middle. But the information you receive about the bill depends very much on where you read it.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

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

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