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

Sacramento Bee

By Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow

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…..[Read the full Article HERE]