What does the new federal water bill mean for California? For one, a big win for farmers

BY DALE KASLER AND RYAN SABALOW

dkasler@sacbee.com

California farmers and Southern California cities were aghast last winter when much of the heavy rainfall that fell in Northern California washed through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to sea. In their view, it represented a lost opportunity to capture high river flows and pump water to arid regions south of the Delta.

This winter could prove dramatically different. Upending a fragile, decades-long balance between human needs and the environment, Congress passed a wide-ranging water bill last weekend that is likely to result in greater pumping of Northern California water to farms and cities in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The bill, co-authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, despite furious opposition from Feinstein’s longtime Senate ally, fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer.

With more storms heading toward Northern California this week, the bill could affect operations in the Delta right away if signed by President Barack Obama. The bill is designed to route more of the Sacramento River’s flows to the giant government-run pumping stations near Tracy, which deliver water to California’s dry interior and southern expanse via the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. That would mean less water in the rivers for fish and wildlife, and less flowing to the San Francisco Bay and out to the ocean.

Farm groups and south state cities called the controversial bill a long-overdue course correction that puts human needs on an even footing with fish and other environmental purposes.

“The intent really is to avoid the absolute catastrophe that was the 2016 operations, where you had days and days and days on end of massive amounts of water flowing through the Delta” and out to the ocean, said Johnny Amaral of the Westlands Water District, the massive agricultural district that spent $1 million lobbying Congress over water the past two years.

Environmentalists, however, said by authorizing increased pumping in the Delta, the legislation will bring further ruin to the dwindling fish populations that are protected by the Endangered Species Act. A recent study by scientists at the Bay Institute, an environmental group, warned that the San Francisco Bay and its tributaries already are facing ecosystem collapse because so little freshwater is flowing out to sea from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems.

“This act is trying to tip the scales,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “This will increase the harm to the salmon and steelhead and Delta smelt.” He said most provisions of the bill would remain in effect for five years, whether the drought continues or not.

If Obama signs the bill, which is no sure thing, it could put the federal government on a collision course with California regulators. The state has strong laws in place to protect endangered species and Delta water quality. The State Water Resources Control Board, which has broad authority over the allocation of water coursing through the Delta, already has begun updating its standards for water quality and restricting the amount of river flows that can get pumped south.

“It remains to be seen the extent to which (California law) gets swept by the wayside,” said Holly Doremus, an expert on water law at UC Berkeley. “I think it will lead to litigation over these kinds of issues.”

A White House spokesman said last week that Obama has concerns about the language regarding Delta pumping and some other sections in the bill. But the bill also has popular provisions – such as $170 million to address the crippled drinking-water system in Flint, Mich. – that would be sacrificed if Obama issues a veto.

Along with the pumping provisions, the bill would funnel money into an array of California water projects. Among them: $415 million for watershed restoration and other environmental aid for Lake Tahoe; up to $335 million for two proposed reservoirs in California, including the Sites reservoir north of Sacramento; $880 million for flood-control projects on the American and Sacramento rivers in Sacramento; and $780 million for flood-control projects in West Sacramento.

California farm groups and their allies in Congress, mainly House Republicans, had been pushing for years for legislation that would free up more water for agriculture. Those efforts intensified in the state’s prolonged drought, as cutbacks in government surface water deliveries resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland being idled.

Even amid the cutbacks, California agriculture has largely prospered in recent years, due to intensive groundwater pumping and strong prices for dairy, almonds and many other commodities.

Feinstein, who has strong ties to agriculture, had worked to craft legislation that would ease Delta pumping restrictions without tampering with the Endangered Species Act. The version passed this weekend, co-authored with Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the House majority leader, includes language designed to ensure that federal water officials still must abide by environmental laws.

“This bill isn’t perfect, but I do believe it will help California,” Feinstein said. “After three years and dozens of versions of legislation, I think this is the best we can do.”

Federal fisheries officials declined to comment Monday, saying they still were reviewing the bill. But earlier this year, they argued that because several kinds of Central Valley fish are nearly extinct, they had no choice but to order dam and pump operators to be more conservative during the high water flows last winter.

The bill doesn’t gut the Endangered Species Act or do away with the influential recommendations federal scientists issue about the risk levels to fish from Delta pumping. But it does require pump operators to push the limits on how much water can be pumped.

The bill says the water projects must be managed to “maximize water supplies for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.” The projects’ customers include most of the state’s major agricultural water agencies and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million people in the Los Angeles and San Diego regions.

How would they get more water? One example is in the regulation of the “reverse flow” limitations on the San Joaquin River. The Delta pumping stations near Tracy are so powerful, they disrupt river flows and pull migrating fish toward predators that await them at the pump entrances and the pumps themselves.

Under current law, biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decide how strong the reverse flow can be. The new law would require the federal government to ramp up the pumps to the maximum allowed under the Endangered Species Act unless there’s evidence of “additional adverse effects” on the fish.

“It would be the highest-pumping, the least-protective end of the range,” said Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Roger Patterson, assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, said the bill won’t force the hand of fisheries officials.

Instead, he said, it requires fisheries officials to justify their decisions. Plus, he said, the legislation provides millions of dollars so scientists can collect more reliable data about the relationship between fish health and pumping. Patterson’s agency is among those that protested when fisheries officials ordered the pumps throttled back during last winter’s storms.

“The protective mechanisms are still there. This just basically says, ‘Try to squeeze out more water consistent with protecting species, and here’s some money to get better data. And you need to explain and document the decisions you made,’ ” Patterson said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066@dakasler