5/30/14: Feinstein water legislation will weaken Delta conservation efforts
By Harrison 'Hap' Dunning and Steve MachtingerSpecial to the Mercury News
California is in the midst of a severe drought in which all Californians suffer — farmers, municipal ratepayers, and fishing and tourism communities that depend on healthy fish populations and functioning ecosystems. This is the time when all of those who use California water — in other words, all of us — should come together to find durable solutions to our state's perennial water crises. So we were shocked and saddened when, at this moment of crisis and opportunity, Sen. Dianne Feinstein appeared to blame the conservation community for the state's failed water management practices.
The truth is that The Bay Institute and its allies have worked constructively with Feinstein and others on California water policy issues for decades. The list of such efforts is long and includes the Bay-Delta Accord, the CALFED Bay-Delta Program, Feinstein's water transfers legislation, Feinstein's 2010 water supply negotiations, and the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.
Indeed, the senator's web site proudly cites an example of when she turned one of our policy initiatives, restoration of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, into one of her great legislative legacies. The San Joaquin, California's second largest river, has been badly treated by the diversion of nearly all its flow at Friant Dam near Fresno. The San Joaquin River Restoration Program was enabled by Feinstein's legislation-- legislation that we and our colleagues helped her to formulate around dual goals of providing both water supply and environmental benefits to the San Joaquin Valley. Just last month, as a result of this program, spring-run Chinook salmon were reintroduced into the waters of the San Joaquin River for the first time in more than 60 years.
The restoration program created by Feinstein's legislation has minimized water supply impacts to the Friant water districts and provided water supply benefits to other parts of the San Joaquin Valley. Using publicly available numbers, staff of The Bay Institute have calculated that:
1) Out of the 700,000 acre-feet of additional water released from Friant Dam for restoration purposes, approximately 600 thousand acre-feet soaked into groundwater aquifers, was returned to Friant water districts, or was sold by those districts to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley;
2) The Restoration Program reoperated Friant Dam to reduce water supply impacts of restoration and provided nearly 500,000 acre-feet of water (at very low prices) to water districts in the Valley during recent wet years for use in dry years such as we are now experiencing.
Furthermore, much of the Restoration Program's funding has been dedicated to projects that improve water supply — such as increasing the capacity of the Friant-Kern and Madera canals and expanding water banks — and flood and seepage management in the San Joaquin Valley.
The Restoration Program's multiple benefits are under attack in the House of Representatives even though the Restoration Program has not had any negative affect on water supply this year; the Restoration Program will be damaged if elements of the House bill are retained in a final compromise with Feinstein's drought legislation, which recently passed in the Senate.
Feinstein's own legislation weakens existing protections for imperiled salmon and steelhead migrating through the Delta as long as the drought proclamation remains in effect — a short-term "fix" for water supplies with long-term consequences to California's salmon populations and the commercial fishing economy.
California must find solutions for the real problems with the state's water supply, including lack of groundwater regulation in overdrafted parts of the San Joaquin Valley; failure to invest sufficiently in water recycling infrastructure and conservation; and replacement of row crop farming with tree crops that harden demand for water. Periodic droughts are part of California's climate, and they may become more frequent under climate change. Feinstein appears to blame the conservation community for not solving this problem because we will not agree to short-term fixes that result in species extinctions, continued degradation of the West Coast's largest estuary, and the demise of related fishing and tourism businesses.
We urge Feinstein to preserve the legacy of her commitment to balancing agricultural water supply needs with protection of the environment. We hope she does not give in to the demands of those in the House of Representatives who would sacrifice our aquatic ecosystems, fish and wildlife, and the people who rely on them. We also hope she will look to bring Californians together to solve the problems we have collectively created and not blame the conservation community for delivering the bad news that California's continued mismanagement of limited water supplies fails us all.
Harrison "Hap" Dunning is a member of the board of The Bay Institute and professor of law emeritus at the UC-Davis School of Law. Steve Machtinger is the chairman of the coard of The Bay Institute and an attorney in San Francisco. They wrote this article for this newspaper.