GOP drought bill: Boost Delta pumping, stop San Joaquin River restoration

The Fresno BeeJanuary 21, 2014 

With Mount Diablo in the distance at top left, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's waters shimmer between Staten Island, left, and Tyler Island.


Three San Joaquin Valley Republican congressmen will join House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday in Bakersfield, where they will announce emergency drought legislation intended to bring more water to the region.

If approved, the bill would allow the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumps to operate as long as water is available, said Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican who will be in Bakersfield on Wednesday.

It would also stop the San Joaquin River restoration, said Nunes, who has been a critic of the restoration in the past. The restoration's goal is to reconnect the river with the Pacific Ocean and reintroduce salmon runs.

Both legislative actions would remain in effect until summer 2015, Nunes said.

The proposed legislation comes less than a week after Gov. Jerry Brown declared an official state of emergency to deal with the drought. The move allows state agencies to re-examine policies for how water is managed and distributed among competing interests, including the environment and agriculture.

California is in the midst of its third dry year. The lack of snow and rain has depleted reservoirs and reduced streams and rivers to drastically low levels.

Currently, delta pumps that supply water to west-side Valley farmers are working at minimal levels and have been for two months.

The reason, however, is low storage in reservoirs and low river flows, and not because of any environmental regulations to protect threatened delta smelt and endangered salmon populations. Pumping restrictions to protect those species could kick in,, however, if the drought loosens and rain and snow start hitting the state.

Nunes said the proposed measures are common-sense short-term solutions that would result in more water from the Valley's two main sources -- the delta and the San Joaquin River, which provides water to east-side Valley agriculture.

But Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said his initial take on the proposal is that it's "bad news.

"They are basically using the drought as an excuse to go after the (Endangered Species Act) and the salmon protection," he said.

Even if the delta pumps were "allowed to go full bore this year," farmers still wouldn't get enough water and the salmon population would be decimated, Grader said.

Delaying the San Joaquin River restoration would yield a similar result, he said.

"It just is foolishness to try to basically stop the San Joaquin restoration," Grader said. "We're making progress."

A third component of the bill would create a joint House-Senate committee that would meet to find more comprehensive and longer-term solutions to California's water challenges.

"It forces the House and Senate to meet to reach a solution," Nunes said.

Besides Nunes, Rep. David Valadao, a Hanford Republican, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican, will be with Boehner at Wednesday's event.

A site for the event has yet to be determined.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320 or Follow John Ellis @johnellis24 on Twitter as he highlights developments from the announcement in Bakersfield.

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