Editorials

Valley water challenges are in GOP’s hands now

From left, Sandra Brock, Michael Spomer, Adam Zakarian, and Armelita Surabian, wait for the rally for Donald Trump, May 27, 2016, at Selland Arena. Trump promised to deliver more water for Valley agriculture if elected president.
From left, Sandra Brock, Michael Spomer, Adam Zakarian, and Armelita Surabian, wait for the rally for Donald Trump, May 27, 2016, at Selland Arena. Trump promised to deliver more water for Valley agriculture if elected president. The Fresno Bee file

We don’t expect the anonymous folks responsible for the anti-Jim Costa signs along I-5 and the Valley’s highways to tear them down, now that the Fresno Democrat has won election to the House of Representatives for the seventh time.

Costa is the object of the Valley’s right-wing wrath on two fronts: water and high-speed rail. Never mind that Costa himself is a farmer and needs irrigation water for his almond orchards. Much of his time is consumed with advocating for reliable water deliveries to growers on the west and east sides of the Valley.

And, yes, Costa has pushed for high-speed rail since his days in California’s Legislature. But, as The Sacramento Bee’s Capitol columnist, Dan Walters, reported Wednesday, our state’s ambitious high-speed rail project might be destined to become a rail modernization program instead.

That means that the $68 billion estimated price tag could shrink to the original $9.95 billion approved by voters – although Dan Richard, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told an editorial board member later Wednesday that the full-scale project is still on.

But potentially big changes are not limited to high-speed rail. Providing more water for farmers is a totally Republican challenge now. Failure to deliver no longer can be blamed on the closest Democrat: President Barack Obama, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Costa.

Donald Trump, who pledged to help Valley farmers during his two campaign visits here, soon will occupy the White House. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, a bulldog on water, is an executive member of Trump’s transition team. The incoming administration also has appointed a Westlands Water District lobbyist, David Bernhardt, to head the Interior Department transition team that will make recommendations on policies and personnel.

Wait, there’s more powder in the arsenal.

For the first time since 2003-06, there will be a Republican in the White House and Republican majorities in the House and Senate. If you’re wondering what was accomplished to add Valley irrigation water in that era, the answer is practically zilch. Why? The Bush administration did not want to spend the money – not with the Iraq War putting America deeply in debt – and Bush subscribed to the political adage that folks inside the Beltway best not involve themselves in western water battles.

Trump, however, is a political maverick who plays by his own rules. He has promised to put people back to work and improve the business climate with a 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure plan. He additionally has promised to “complete projects faster and at lower cost through significant regulatory reform and ending needless red tape.”

With Nunes and Bernhardt ensconced inside Trump’s circle of trust, we can envision several scenarios that would be favorable for Valley agriculture and therefore be favorable for the Valley economy. Surely a small percentage of the president-elect’s trillion-dollar plan could be earmarked for dams at Temperance Flat above Friant and the planned Sites Reservoir in Northern California.

Roadblocks remain, however, to increasing irrigation deliveries absent dam construction. There are the Endangered Species Act (signed by Richard Nixon in 1973) and subsequent legal rulings that make it difficult to bring water to the Valley at the expense of trying to save salmon, steelhead and Delta smelt. And there are powerful urban and agricultural water districts outside the Valley that want to hold onto what they have now.

We wish the Republicans good luck. Heaven knows that the California drought and regulatory restrictions have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of Valley prime ag land, resulting in lost wages for people in cities and rural communities. Obama talked a good game about helping rural areas, but never delivered on his promises.

We hope it doesn’t come to pass, but if the anticipated GOP efforts to secure more water fail to bear fruit, will we see signs in 2018 along our roadways blaming Trump, Paul Ryan and Nunes for letting farmers down?

Not on your life.

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