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House Bill Redirects River Flows From Fish to Farms

A bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives would loosen restrictions on Delta water diversions, halt restoration projects and weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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A grove of young pistachio trees near Porterville, California, in August 2016. H.R. 23, supported by agricultural groups in California, would help direct more water to farms.AFP/ROBYN BECK

Republican-backed federal legislation with strong support from agricultural communities in California aims to eradicate salmon from much of the San Joaquin River. It will nullify numerous laws protecting wetlands and waterways in order to provide farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with more northern California water.

Environmentalists and fishery advocates are characterizing the bill, H.R. 23, or the Gaining Responsibility on Water Act of 2017, as one of the most aggressive attempts ever taken by the political allies of farming interests to divert maximum flows of water south from the Delta.

The 134-page bill strikes from existing laws a multitude of provisions that currently require water for fish and replaces them with measures that would redirect flows toward farmland.

“In this bill, they’re just saying, ‘Let’s turn the [Sacramento and San Joaquin] rivers into canals and forget about keeping fish alive and the many other natural benefits of rivers,’” said John McManus, the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. He says the bill benefits a small group of landowners “at the expense of the entire rest of the state.”

The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), was passed on a party line vote in the House of Representatives last week. If the Senate approves the bill, it will loosen restrictions on Delta water diversions, stop river restoration projects and weaken the Endangered Species Act, all of which at times limit how much water reaches farmers in areas without reliable supplies of their own. The bill would also hasten the review processes for several proposed dams.

Kern County Water Agency staff confirmed that the agency supports the bill. So does the Fresno County Farm Bureau, whose executive director Ryan Jacobsen was quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “This is the bill we need.” Jacobsen did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did Valadao’s office or Westlands Water District.

A July 12 press release from Valadao’s office calls the bill “an effort to restore water deliveries for struggling communities.”

But according to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, director of the group Restore the Delta, which advocates for protection of the San Francisco-Bay Delta, the familiar story of unemployment in farming communities is being used as part of a ruse to get more water delivered to prosperous landowners.

“These are some of the richest farmers in the country,” she said. “We now have a million acres of almonds in California. Acreage of almonds in Westlands Water District and Kern County has doubled since 2010.”

She says diverting more water to areas chronically stricken by job shortages will not alleviate economic hardships. “These communities will be challenged by unemployment whether the water is running or not,” she said.

Fingerling Chinook salmon swim in a holding pen after they were transferred from a truck into the Mare Island Strait on April 22, 2014, in Vallejo, California. A new bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives would seek to divert more water from fish to farms. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP)

One of Valadao’s bill’s key features is the abandonment of a years-long, ongoing project aimed at reviving the San Joaquin River and restoring its depleted runs of Chinook salmon. The language of the bill explicitly forbids reintroducing salmon to the San Joaquin and would require fish and wildlife agencies to remove any Chinook salmon that find their way into upstream lengths of the river. “No salmonids shall be placed into or allowed to migrate to the Restoration Area,” the bill reads. “If any salmonids are caught at the Hills Ferry Barrier, they shall be salvaged to the extent feasible and returned to an area where there is a viable sustainable salmonid population of substantially the same genotype or phenotype.”

“Not only that, it would completely dry up 60 miles of river and divert every last drop of water to agriculture – that’s the author’s vision of California’s rivers,” said Doug Obegi, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The bill expressly promotes converting parts of the San Joaquin into a “warm water fishery” environment – a type of ecosystem biologists warn is inhospitable to most native species and friendly toward invasive ones, like black bass and sunfish. It also adjusts the state’s water rights system by deprioritizing deliveries to wildlife refuge areas – generally characterized by vast expanses of seasonally flooded wetland – and instead making the water more available to farmers.

The bill’s backers have said in media interviews that habitat restoration efforts, especially those allowing water to flow through the river and eventually out to sea, have had marginal success in reviving fisheries while causing economic harm in agricultural communities. The Fresno County Farm Bureau’s executive director told the San Francisco Chronicle that restoring the San Joaquin River’s salmon runs is a hopeless prospect.

Valadao’s bill would rewrite parts of 1992’s Central Valley Project Improvement Act, or CVPIA, which sought to double naturally produced populations of salmon by requiring that “water dedicated to fish and wildlife purposes by this part [of the CVPIA] is replaced and provided to Central Valley Project water contractors.”

It also would shift control of water resources from state agencies that manage water, fish and wildlife to the federal government – what California attorney general Xavier Becerra argued in a press release is an unconstitutional infringement on state sovereignty.

The bill will face some close scrutiny from at least two Democrats in the Senate.

“We’re really lucky to have [Kamala] Harris and [Dianne] Feinstein opposing this,” Barrigan-Parrilla said.

Feinstein has been an ally of San Joaquin Valley farmers in the past. In December, she coauthored a successful bill – S. 612 – that brought aid to residents of Flint, Michigan, but also allowed increased diversions from the Delta unless biologists could prove that doing so would harm endangered fish – something critics have said is difficult to do.

But Feinstein has stood up in opposition to H.R. 23. “California’s Central Valley helps feed the world,” Feinstein and Harris said in a statement released July 10. “It deserves sensible and responsible water solutions – this measure doesn’t even come close to meeting that test.”

Valadao, they said, is “giving the Trump administration greater control over water management in our state.”

Harris and Feinstein also warned that H.R. 23 undermines the Endangered Species Act. The bill would do this by liberating river management policy from the constraints of the most recent biological opinions drafted about nine years ago by federal fisheries and wildlife agencies for the management of endangered Delta smelt and winter-run Chinook. The senators said Valadao’s bill would revert management of these and other species to outdated scientific standards established in the 1990s.

“We will fight to defeat it in the Senate,” Harris and Feinstein said in their statement.

Obegi doubts the bill will receive the 60 votes it will need to pass the Senate, mainly because both senators from the only state affected by the bill oppose it. He believes the Senate’s vote will reflect what he thinks to be general public consensus.

“I don’t think the people of California want to see their rivers dry up and their native fish and wildlife go extinct,” he says.

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