By Mike Thompson and Doris Matsui
California has an innovative history. We solve big problems and the results have ripple effects all over the world. But when it comes to water policy, we’re unable to make progress.
Unfortunately, the latest proposal made by some California members of Congress makes progress even more difficult.
They claim their proposal (H.R. 3964) will help alleviate the drought and lessen California’s water problems. In reality, it’s nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to use the statewide drought as an excuse to steal water from Northern California.
Proponents of this idea argue that we should immediately pump unlimited amounts of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for south-of-Delta agriculture.
This argument ignores several important facts. First, it will not help alleviate the drought. Even if we pumped as much water south as possible, Central Valley farmers still wouldn’t have enough. That’s because a lack of pumping isn’t the problem. The problem is the lack of rain and snow. There is no more water to pump. Northern California is in a severe drought, with reservoirs less than 50 percent full.
Second, it shows zero regard for the fishers, farmers, families and businesses dependent on the Delta for their livelihoods. Pumping water south would further exacerbate the extreme drought conditions in the Delta and its surrounding regions, and create enormous economic hardships.
The health of the Delta is integral to California’s economy. It supports thousands of jobs in farming, fishing and tourism. The University of the Pacific’s Economic Sustainability Plan found the Delta itself has an economic output of more than $4 billion and provides 23,000 jobs. Pumping more water south of the Delta puts these jobs at risk.
Third, the bill amounts to a federal government bailout for those agriculture interests in the Central Valley who, despite the high risk of extended dry conditions, planted permanent tree crops that require a steady supply of water. They did so knowing such a supply would not always be available.
Fourth, it would harm drinking water for people across Northern California. When clean water is pumped south, the level of salt water in the Delta increases.
Finally, it guts environmental protections and halts the restoration of the San Joaquin River, an agreement to reconnect the river with the Pacific Ocean and reintroduce salmon flows. You cannot overstate the importance of this restoration. Salmon is big business in California. The industry supports tens of thousands of jobs. When the commercial fisheries were closed in 2008, an estimated 10,000 jobs were jeopardized.
Proponents of the Republican water proposal claim those who want to protect the Delta care more about fish than they do people. Statements like these cheapen this debate and insult the intelligence of Californians who know the issue is far more complicated.
State officials have concluded that environmental regulations, such as those that protect the Delta smelt, salmon and other endangered wildlife populations, are not limiting water supplies for agriculture. It’s a lack of rain and snow, not environmental protections, that cause water supply shortages.
The Republicans’ proposal is not the answer to California’s water challenges. Their effort pretends to help one part of the state, while causing real harm to another.