Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Water relief is on the way – if Congress works together

A footprint in the dry, mineral-crusted, banks of the depleted San Luis Reservoir in California, June 12, 2015.
A footprint in the dry, mineral-crusted, banks of the depleted San Luis Reservoir in California, June 12, 2015. NYT file

A recent study by UC Davis confirmed that the Central Valley continues to suffer the brunt of the drought, to the tune of $630 million this year and $5.5 billion over the past three years. Farmers have fallowed more than 1 million acres of land, and 42,000 people have lost their jobs.

But we need to look beyond the numbers. Small farms have gone bankrupt. Generations of farmers have lost their livelihoods, including a cantaloupe farmer I recently met with who lost the farm his grandfather started. He and his father had worked that land side-by-side for decades.

The fires that have ravaged California this year – burning more than 300,000 acres – are a stark reminder that the effects of this drought will be long-lasting. Researchers at UCLA, for example, predict that we will need more than four years of average rainfall and snow just to dig ourselves out of this drought.

The drought’s consequences are too grave to do nothing. That’s why I have fought for $150 million in federal drought relief the past two years and will look to include another $100 million this year.

Some of those funds went to creating new supplies for agricultural irrigation and minimizing the impacts to water users, like through the installation of pumps on the Friant-Kern canal.

But with a potential La Niña, we have to look ahead. It is vital that we enact legislation that provides short-term relief and includes long-term provisions that upgrade our outdated water infrastructure.

Let me be clear: This bill will produce real water, both in the immediate future and in the long term. In the short term, this means a more flexible pumping system, making sure agencies are operating the water pumps off science, not intuition. That means equipping the agencies with the tools necessary to make decisions in real time, increasing pumping when fish are not nearby and decreasing it when they are close.

As the Bureau of Reclamation – the agency responsible for operating the pumps – confirmed, this water bill “is a beneficial piece of legislation that will help California’s water supply in the near- and long-term.”

My water proposal also includes language to increase capacity for storage, desalination and recycling. The 137 projects identified by this bill are capable of generating upwards of 1.4 million acre-feet of water. That would go a long way toward upgrading our water infrastructure, a large portion of which was constructed in the 1970s – when the population of California was only 16 million people.

More than two years and hundreds of hours have been dedicated to this water bill. The White House, Gov. Jerry Brown and their respective agencies were involved to ensure it would not violate the Endangered Species Act or the biological opinions. Provisions were also added from members of the House, both Democrats and Republicans alike, including those that represent the Valley.

The broader public was also included, through dozens of meetings – with farmers, fishermen, water districts and environmentalists – even releasing a draft for the public to review. These efforts have brought everyone to the table, making 26 drafts and 41 amendments this past year alone.

As a result of that broad input, 126 organizations and officials have now written letters of support.

I want to avoid what happened last year, when a water bill was proposed on must-pass funding legislation – a proposal I had never reviewed, had not been vetted, and was opposed by the administration because it violated the Endangered Species Act.

The only way to pass legislation and provide relief to the Central Valley is through compromise and working together.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has served in the U.S. Senate since 1992.