Cities, farmers, fishermen and environmentalists have been waging an exhausting tug of war over water for decades in California, but last fall something unusual happened. All those ropes being tugged by competing interests were woven into something new -- a framework for settling conflicts approved under a package of bills by the Legislature. The agreement might have been a fragile web, but it was a historic one nonetheless. And then, last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) fired a cannonball through it.
Feinstein announced that she would attach a rider to an upcoming federal jobs bill that would boost water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to a vocal agribusiness community in the west San Joaquin Valley. Because these farmers were late to the game of acquiring water rights, they're the first to get shorted when deliveries are cut, as they were last year because of drought conditions and court- ordered pumping restrictions aimed at restoring fish populations. West valley farmers only got about 10% of their allocations of federally subsidized water in 2009, and Feinstein's rider would ensure they get closer to 40% this year and next.
Feinstein says she's proposing the amendment because "people in California's breadbasket face complete economic ruin without help." Indeed, unemployment is running alarmingly high in some Central Valley communities. But then, they've long been beset by chronic unemployment. Moreover, a report by the University of the Pacific suggests that the vast majority of the region's job losses have been in the construction industry, not agriculture. And it's perverse to insert language in a jobs bill aimed at benefiting farmworkers without considering the impact on fishermen, whose industry has been devastated by heavy pumping of delta water. The delta is home to hundreds of species, including the increasingly threatened chinook salmon.
That's only the beginning of what's wrong with Feinstein's amendment. If approved, it would create a legal morass around conflicts between federal and state endangered species protections. Worse yet, it would blow apart the trust built up among competing stakeholders during years of negotiations preceding last year's water package. Her attempt to make an end run around this bipartisan process, at the behest of a powerful interest group, could destroy what limited progress has been made and end in years of litigation and acrimony.
Though the west valley's farms are important to the state's economy, they are located in a naturally arid landscape that's unsuited to agriculture; moreover, runoff from the area contains heavy selenium deposits, which turned a local reservoir into a toxic waste dump. If cuts in water deliveries make it expensive to farm in such unsustainable places -- well, maybe that's as it should be. The region should only get its water allotment if managers deem there is enough surplus to allow it.
Feinstein says she's still working on the language of her rider and is open to alternative suggestions. Here's ours: Stop interfering with the state's delicate water talks and withdraw this destructive amendment.