Seizing an opportunity presented by California’s drought, GOP House Speaker John Boehner visited the dusty Central Valley this week and proposed emergency legislation to halt environmental efforts in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and open the spigots to aid farmers and business.
Although details are still sketchy, Representative George Miller, a Democrat from the Central Valley, called the bill “misguided” and “dangerous.” He told the San Francisco Chronicle it is an “attempt to gut federal and state environmental and water protections without sound science or considering the economic toll on the Northern California economy.”
Boehner appeared at a press conference in a dry farm field outside Bakersfield Wednesday with California Republican Congressmen Kevin McCarthy, David Valadao and Devin Nunes and blamed the water shortage on conservation efforts. Farmer Larry Starrh, whose field was used for the occasion, said, “Water is a weapon. Water is a hostage. Our water system is battered and broken. It's been hijacked by unreasonableness, and we need help.”
The proposal’s broad outline would increase flows at Delta pumps through 2015 “as long as water is available;” would temporarily end environmental restoration flows to the San Joaquin River “to stop wasting water;” and establish a bipartisan House-Senate committee to devise long-term solutions.
Any legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House would have to clear the U.S. Senate, where Democrats reign. California Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were skeptical of Boehner’s effort, with Feinstein appearing more amenable to negotiating. Boxer said in a statement it was “old ideas that ignore many of the stakeholders counting on a real solution to this devastating drought.”
The Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA) said the proposal would destroy the state's salmon fishing industry. “Let’s get real,” GGSA vice-chairman Zeke Grader said in a statement. “Pulling the plug on the Endangered Species Act or turning the Delta spigots wide open is not going to get San Joaquin agribusiness and frackers the water they need; all it will do is destroy Central Valley salmon and the state’s salmon fishery.”
Doug Obegi at the Natural Resources Defense Council disputed claims by conservatives that environmental protections were the cause of the state’s water problems. “The Endangered Species Act isn’t controlling pumping operations in the Delta, and isn’t likely to significantly reduce water supplies this year,” he said on the council’s blog. “Drought, not environmental laws, is the overwhelming cause of low water allocations across the State.”
He argued that the best way to prepare for periods of drought are through “conservation, water recycling, groundwater management and stormwater capture,” all policies routinely opposed by Republicans.
Any decision to dramatically increase water flow through the Delta would throw a monkey wrench into state efforts to strike a delicate balance between the interests of local residents, agribusiness, conservationists, industrialists and thirsty Californians to the south.
The $25-billion Delta Conservation Plan, in the works since 2006, calls for habitat restoration, levee repairs and construction of two tunnels that would facilitate increased water flows to interested parties. It is yet another attempt to accomplish what the doomed Peripheral Canal project in the 1960s could not and has ignited the same heated passions of its predecessor.
The GOP House bill is expected to be introduced within two weeks.