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Executive Summary for February 12th

We analyze key developments in the California drought, including a new California water bill introduced in Congress by Senator Dianne Feinstein that has drawn both praise and criticism – plus, why farmers hit record sales in 2014 during drought conditions.

Published on Feb. 12, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Feinstein Makes California Water Bill Official

For four years there have been efforts in Congress to pass a water bill aimed at drought relief and long-term water issues in California. Another attempt is being made as Senator Dianne Feinstein released a bill (her third) on Wednesday “to provide short-term water supplies to drought-stricken California and provide for long-term investments in drought resiliency throughout the Western United States.”

The bill is 184 pages in length, but here are some things it would do:

  • Help rural communities with fewer than 60,000 people get grants to create secure water supplies
  • Direct $100 million over five years to desalination initiatives and research
  • Aid reservoir building or expansion by designating $600 million for projects that could include Shasta Dam, Los Vaqueros, Sites Reservoir or Temperance Flat
  • Give $200 million for water recycling and reuse programs
  • Authorize a labeling program for water-efficient products
  • Designate $55 million for programs to help the protection and recovery of threatened fish such as delta smelt and salmon
  • Create provisions to increase the capture and storage of water
  • Facilitate transfers of water and extend the time frame for water transfers.

The bill is generally seen as a compromise among different stakeholders’ interests and as such the reactions have been pretty mixed. Some environmental groups (like the Sierra Club) have faulted it for funding dams and not requiring more protection for threatened fish populations. And some Central Valley farming interests feel they’re still being left high and dry by the legislation.

Rep. David Valado (R-Calif.) said, “The senator’s legislation focuses on desalination, recycling and protecting the Endangered Species Act. While these are admirable goals in areas such as San Francisco, this legislation will not provide those suffering from the drought with the water supply they so desperately need.

But many water agencies including the Metropolitan Water District praised Feinstein’s effort and said, “This proposed legislation would provide much-needed funding for projects that are critical to our future.” (More reactions can be found here on Maven’s Notebook.)

There is some concern that increased snow and rain in California this year may cause Congress to tone down efforts to make California water issues a priority. It has so far proved impossible to pass a California water bill – even when conditions were desperate last year after 5 percent of normal snowpack. So this year may be even harder. And as the The Fresno Bee reported, “In Congress … the repeated legislative failures have chilled the negotiating atmosphere.”

Farm Sales Rise During Drought

Wondering how farmers are doing during the drought? By at least one metric, they’re doing pretty well. The state’s agriculture department this week reported that in 2014 California farmers sold a record $54 billion worth of goods and $21 billion of that were exports.

So how did farmers pull this off during one of the worst droughts in California’s history?

“Experts cite two key reasons for California farms’ strong showing even in dry times: a California almond boom fed by surging demand from China and elsewhere, and farmers’ ability to dig deeper, bigger wells to pump up more groundwater when other sources run out,” the Associated Press reported.

Both of these things may provide temporary but not long-term profit for farmers. The price of almonds is falling, in part because of reduced demand overseas. It’s still a good cash crop for farmers at current prices, but nowhere near the level it was just six months ago.

But most worrying is the reliance on groundwater by farmers when surface water is cut off or diminished. Falling water tables from overpumping in the Central Valley have meant poor water quality, subsidence, or for some, no water at all. More than 2,500 wells have gone dry – leaving families without water in their homes.

And it’s important to note that the statistic from the agriculture department is gross sales and not profit. It doesn’t take into consideration how much more some farmers may have spent to get water, and the increased energy costs of pumping groundwater.

California Water Fix Moving Along

Yesterday the Water Resources Control Board released its decision on the timing of hearings for California Water Fix, Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan for twin tunnels to move water under the Bay Delta.

The Brown Administration is eager to move hearings along as quickly as possible and the first hearing will be with regard to a water rights change by the Department of Water Resource and the Bureau of Reclamation.

However, there was pushback from some groups that felt hearings shouldn’t begin on California Water Fix until environmental reviews were completed, including those regarding the Endangered Species Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Water Quality Control Plan for the Bay Delta estuary.

But the Water Board has decided that the show must go on.

“The WaterFix is a key component of petitioners’ plans to address critical water supply and ecosystem concerns in the Bay Delta,” the board reported. “As such, it is in the public interest to resolve without further delay whether and how the WaterFix will be part of the solution to longstanding problems in the Bay Delta.”

The board has published a revised timeline for the hearing schedules, which begin on March 1.

Top image: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. this week introduced a new bill in the Senate to provide drought relief to California, as well as long-term investments in the state’s water. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

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