California governor pans Republican water plan in face of drought

Sharon Bernstein
The receding water line of Lake Hodges is seen in San Diego County January 17, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown, whose state is facing its worst drought in decades, harshly criticized on Monday an effort by Congressional Republicans to roll back environmental rules limiting how much water agencies can pump out of the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta in dry years.

The emergency legislation would allow state and federal water managers to send water to farms and communities in California's parched breadbasket next summer, when the impact of the drought begins to hit hardest. The legislation is scheduled for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday.

It would roll back pumping restrictions imposed over the past two decades that required officials to keep a certain amount of water flowing through the delta to protect fish. In wet years, restrictions decreased, but for the past three dry years, little pumping has been allowed, and barring an onslaught of rain, none is expected to be allowed this year.

Brown, in a strongly worded letter to leaders of the Natural Resources committee, said the GOP proposal was "unwelcome and intrusive," and would undermine years of progress in the state's water and environmental management efforts.

"It would override state laws and protections, and mandate that certain water interests come out ahead of others," Brown wrote. "It falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies."

In his letter, Brown emphasized the severity of the drought, saying the state had taken unprecedented action to deal with it, including creating a plan to build more reservoirs and help communities purchase water from other sources.

This week, managers of a federally run project that sends water from the delta to the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere are widely expected to announce that it will be able to provide little, if any, water next summer because of environmental rules that restrict pumping if water levels become too low.

Last week, a state project with a similar mission said it would take no water out of the delta this year.

Brown has already urged Californians to cut back their water use by 20 percent, and additional measures are expected to be announced this week. The state has banned fishing in numerous rivers and streams, and identified 17 communities at risk of running out of water if alternate sources are not found.


Water has long been a contentious issue in California, where Sierra Nevada snow melt and resources from the delta are used to water agricultural land and slake the thirst of urban centers.

Over the past 20 years, restrictions have been put in place on pumping water from the delta during dry years to protect fish and wildlife.

U.S. Congressman David Valadao, a San Joaquin Valley Republican and a lead author of the bill, said in a statement that the state's looming water shortages were the result of "failed government policies," compounded by drought. He was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

His legislation would overturn years of court decisions and other efforts to protect the delta under the federal Endangered Species Act, but would leave in place an agreement from 1994 that supporters say would still offer protection to wildlife.

Had his measure been in place last year, agencies could have provided an additional 800,000 acre-feet of water to farms and communities, a staff member said.

At the state level, the measure has rankled the Democrats, who make up majorities in both houses of the legislature.

Instead of rolling back environmental protections, Congress should help pay for reservoirs, water recycling plants and other infrastructure, said Democratic State Senator Lois Wolk, who represents suburbs east of San Francisco along with much of California's famed Napa Valley wine country.

"We can use federal partners, not partisan stunts," she said.

But the proposed Congressional bill has won strong support from Republicans in the legislature, who also support a bond measure to build more reservoirs and water storage facilities.

"It makes absolutely no sense to have water going down the San Joaquin River for a lost tribe of salmon that have been gone for 60 years," said Republican state Senator Andy Vidak, also of Hanford. "There will continue to be real human suffering without strong and immediate leadership on the water crisis."

(This version of the story was refiled to fix typographical error in seventh paragraph)

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andre Grenon)