Delta Flows: Will Senator Feinstein Defend the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary?

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta
June 3, 2016

It may be time to admit a sad truth – the anticipated 2015-16 El Niño did not end California’s drought. Most of the rain and snow fell in the north. Southern California received only about half its normal rainfall. In fact, the State Water Resources Control Board began sending out yesterday water curtailment notices, orders that tell junior water rights holders that they cannot use water.
Senator Dianne Feinstein recently toured California newspaper editorial boards to tout her California Drought Bill, S.2533, which she claims will expedite water deliveries to agricultural interests in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley while still protecting endangered fish in the SF Bay-Delta Estuary.
As Senator Feinstein and her colleagues in the House ramp up for one more try at a Grand Water Bargain, let’s keep a few things in mind.

California’s Economy No Longer Depends on Agriculture

The Economist noted in 2014, while agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s developed water, it generates only 2 percent of the state’s economic activity. The agricultural areas receiving water exported from the Delta generate just 0.3 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
Feinstein’s bill favors big industrial agriculture operations making huge profits growing crops for export. The losers in this bill will be salmon fishermen, family farms in the Delta, and every other Californian who depends on the water in our rivers.
Drought “relief” should not put one politically powerful special interest ahead of the other 98 percent of the state’s economy.

Less Snowpack, Too Much Water Promised

Climate scientists tell us that the future of California is significantly less snowy. The collection and storage systems that once filled regularly with water may no longer support a population of 40 million people AND expanding agricultural operations growing food for export.
If chronic drought is our new reality, we must reevaluate how much agriculture the state’s water supply can actually support. California should strive for existing water to go further, rather than simply moving it around to assuage the squeakiest wheel.
We also need to get real about how much water is actually available. UC Merced Professor Joshua Viers and UC Davis scientist Ted Grantham recently found that the state has promised FIVE TIMES more water that the state actually has. This makes it very difficult for regulators to cut back during droughts.

Taking More Water out of the Delta Won’t Make It Healthier

Senator Feinstein claims her bill requires that any water management changes must obey court-ordered biological opinions prepared to protect endangered fish species.

The scientifically-based rules aim to prevent additional harm to species that depend on freshwater flows. During drought, it’s even more critical that we adhere to these protections, or we risk losing those species permanently.

San Joaquin Valley agricultural interests are seeking exemptions from the Endangered Species Act, but should not get them. The law remains hugely popular among the American people, despite the efforts of some political campaigns to attack fisheries. Undermining it would benefit only a handful of industrial irrigators.

We Must Protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta

Feinstein’s bill aims to “maximize” the amount of water flowing from the Delta to agricultural operations in the western San Joaquin Valley. This language reflects the demands of anti-environmentalists in the House of Representatives.
As the former mayor of San Francisco, Senator Feinstein is well aware of the role a healthy Bay-Delta estuary plays for recreation, jobs, wildlife and the millions of people in the region.

Seeking Balance? There Is Another Way

Senator Feinstein should consider the proposal laid out in HR 2983 by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. This bill would focus investments on wastewater recycling, desalination, stormwater treatment, groundwater recharge and improving dam operations with updated weather forecasting. We praise those aspects of Feinstein’s bill that mirror this agenda. These proposals actually create “new” water by recycling and reusing what we already have.

To protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, Rep. Huffman’s approach offers the best way forward for all Californians.

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