Policy

Bipartisan Push on California Drought Relief

House and Senate lawmakers press Obama administration to pump more water

Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants more water for drought stricken regions. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

California lawmakers from both sides of the aisle called on President Barack Obama to direct federal agencies to pump more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which has been replenished by rainfall, to bring drought relief to the agriculturally intense San Joaquin Valley.

A letter by a coalition of 11 California Republican House members, led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy , R-Calif., and another from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged the Obama administration to allow water exports after high water levels resulting from El Niño rain.

“Through El Niño, Mother Nature has blessed our state with much-needed precipitation,” the Californian Republicans wrote. “Unfortunately, both Fish and Wildlife Services and National Marine Fisheries Service have severely limited the ability of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to export water from the Delta to California’s Central Valley and further south.”

At issue, according to the lawmakers, is the federal agencies' narrow-minded focus on the impacts that pumping would have on the endangered delta smelt, an indicator species to scientists of the overall health of the waterway.

“Water flows in the Sacramento River are the highest they have been in four years,” Feinstein wrote. “Despite these high flows, rather than pumping as much water as possible without undue harm to the smelt, pumping levels remained constant for the past month.”

She wrote that “69 communities in the Southern San Joaquin Valley reported significant water supply and quality issues. And land is caving, bridges collapsing, as a result of overdrawn ground wells and subsidence.”

The bipartisan push on the water pumping is a rare sign of agreement between the two sides on how to approach drought relief measures.

Feinstein has insisted that any efforts to address the California drought should respect existing environmental law, like the Endangered Species Act ( PL 93-205 ). Her legislation ( S 2533 ) calls for at least $1.3 billion in funding and support for projects, including desalination and recycling, and addresses environmental concerns that prevented agreement on previous relief efforts.

But with the water levels so high and only three recorded smelt sightings near the pumps in the past year, Feinstein argues that there would not be any lasting damage to the fish population.

“I believe that this year’s El Niño has highlighted a fundamental problem with our water system: A dogmatic adherence to a rigid set of operating criteria that continues to handcuff our ability to rebuild our reserves,” she wrote. “We need a more nimble system.”

House Republicans, however, have accused Feinstein of similar singular focus on the environmental impacts of water pumping in their previous negotiations. The House passed a drought relief bill ( HR 2898 ) earlier this year that would release more water from the massive, federally operated Central Valley Project and the California-operated State Water Project.

The House version would adjust management of the delta smelt, ease water restrictions related to salmon protection, speed permitting for projects and require studies on more water storage, but both the Obama administration and Feinstein opposed the measure, citing environmental concerns.

Earlier this week, Obama signed a presidential memorandum that directed federal agencies to better collaborate on drought data collection and planning efforts.

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

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