Viewpoints: House emergency drought bill just another water grab

February 4, 2014

Published in The Sacramento Bee on February 4, 2014

Viewpoints: House emergency drought bill just another water grab

By Doris Matsui and Mike Thompson

California has an innovative history. We solve big problems and the results have ripple effects all over the world. But when it comes to water policy, we’re unable to make progress.

Unfortunately, the latest proposal made by some California members of Congress makes progress even more difficult.

They claim their proposal (H.R. 3964) will help alleviate the drought and lessen California’s water problems. In reality, it’s nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to use the statewide drought as an excuse to steal water from Northern California.

Proponents of this idea argue that we should immediately pump unlimited amounts of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for south-of-Delta agriculture.

This argument ignores several important facts. First, it will not help alleviate the drought. Even if we pumped as much water south as possible, Central Valley farmers still wouldn’t have enough. That’s because a lack of pumping isn’t the problem. The problem is the lack of rain and snow. There is no more water to pump. Northern California is in a severe drought, with reservoirs less than 50 percent full.

Second, it shows zero regard for the fishers, farmers, families and businesses dependent on the Delta for their livelihoods. Pumping water south would further exacerbate the extreme drought conditions in the Delta and its surrounding regions, and create enormous economic hardships.

The health of the Delta is integral to California’s economy. It supports thousands of jobs in farming, fishing and tourism. The University of the Pacific’s Economic Sustainability Plan found the Delta itself has an economic output of more than $4 billion and provides 23,000 jobs. Pumping more water south of the Delta puts these jobs at risk.

Third, the bill amounts to a federal government bailout for those agriculture interests in the Central Valley who, despite the high risk of extended dry conditions, planted permanent tree crops that require a steady supply of water. They did so knowing such a supply would not always be available.

Fourth, it would harm drinking water for people across Northern California. When clean water is pumped south, the level of salt water in the Delta increases.

Finally, it guts environmental protections and halts the restoration of the San Joaquin River, an agreement to reconnect the river with the Pacific Ocean and reintroduce salmon flows. You cannot overstate the importance of this restoration. Salmon is big business in California. The industry supports tens of thousands of jobs. When the commercial fisheries were closed in 2008, an estimated 10,000 jobs were jeopardized.

Proponents of the Republican water proposal claim those who want to protect the Delta care more about fish than they do people. Statements like these cheapen this debate and insult the intelligence of Californians who know the issue is far more complicated.

State officials have concluded that environmental regulations such as those that protect the Delta smelt, salmon and other endangered wildlife populations are not limiting water supplies for agriculture. It’s a lack of rain and snow, not environmental protections, that cause water supply shortages.

The Republicans’ proposal is not the answer to California’s water challenges. Their effort pretends to help one part of the state, while causing real harm to another.

Yet despite a lack of sound science, transparency and open debate, the House Republicans are planning to jam their proposal through the House of Representatives this week. Political games like this serve no purpose. They divide our state and set California back at a time when our state needs real solutions.

So let’s focus on real solutions. There is no silver bullet to address California’s drought, but rather a whole toolbox of remedies that are long overdue.

Congress should invest in an all-the-above approach that includes things such as more water conservation, more water recycling, and more underground and above-ground storage (where it makes sense).

Congress should also create a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority, as we have had for transportation since 1998, to get local water infrastructure projects done. This would allow municipalities to build local water infrastructure at a lower cost.

And we should amend the Bureau of Reclamation’s Title XVI program to include many more wastewater recycling projects to create more supply.

With investments like these, we can collect millions of gallons of new water for all of California, help farmers better plan, and create good jobs without risking the health of the Bay Delta, its wildlife, and the families, farmers and small businesses dependent on it for their livelihoods.

California is in a true state of emergency when it comes to water. In 2013 California received less rain than in any other year since it became a state in 1850. Our people deserve better than divisive political stunts. They deserve solutions.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, represents California’s 6th Congressional District. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, represents the 5th Congressional District.