Though most say it’s “not perfect,” California water leaders applaud the large water bill recently signed by President Obama as a necessary “first step” in a long journey needed to correct California’s broken water system.
Officially called the “Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act” (WIIN), the legislation addresses a massive list of water issues throughout the United States, including some that have long-been argued as necessary for California farmers.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said the bill was nearly filibustered at one point. It was also opposed vehemently by California Sen. Barbara Boxer before being passed 78-21 by the Senate on Dec. 10.
At the heart of the matter for California is the movement of water through the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta region to farmers south of there. In the past, water regulators cited environmental fears in their reasoning to withhold surface irrigation from much of the state’s farmers.
The bill orders the secretaries of Interior and Commerce to “provide the maximum quantity of water practicable to Central Valley Project agricultural, municipal and industrial contractors” and wildlife refuges.
The bill does not address the San Joaquin River Settlement Agreement, which stipulates restoration flows and project for the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.
Johnny Amaral has been involved in this fight for some time as well. Now the deputy general manager for the nation’s largest agricultural water district – Westlands Water District – Amaral formerly served as chief of staff for California Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. Nunes is one of several House members who have continued to champion change in federal water policy to help California farmers and residents.
Interviewed ahead of the president’s signing of the bill, Amaral was quick to point out that “the fight is not over.” This is just the first step in a long and necessary journey if California agriculture is to remain sustainable in the Golden State.
For farmers in the 1,000-square-mile Westlands Water District and elsewhere, this legislation “eliminates what I’m calling the catastrophe we faced in 2016,” Amaral says.
Early in 2016 as the state and federal fish agencies agreed that the large pumps that move water from the Delta into San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos could run at higher levels and move flood flows and runoff into the off-stream facility, those controlling the pumps – the California Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation – failed to take advantage of the higher flows by ramping up pumping efforts.
This left San Luis Reservoir without much water throughout the summer as it dropped to under 10 percent of its holding capacity. The result in part was the 5 percent federal allocation of surface irrigation promised to growers in the Westlands Water District was never delivered in 2016, according to Amaral.
“I frequently use that fact as to how broken the operations are,” Amaral says. “They couldn’t even deliver us 5 percent.”
As a comparison, south-of-Delta water users received a 25 percent allocation of surface water in the drought of 1977, which saw water storage at Shasta Lake drop to its lowest level since Shasta Dam was built during World War II. Even during the most recent drought water levels at Shasta Lake did not drop as low.
It was a much improved story for senior water rights holders elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley in the 2015/16 water year as those with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority received their entire surface water allocation.
Steve Chedester, executive director of the Exchange Contractors, says the most recent water year’s 100 percent allocation was the first such allotment they’ve seen in three years. In 2014/15 Exchange Contractors received 52 percent of their contracted water deliveries. The previous year they received 65 percent of their allocation.
This is noteworthy because the contact the senior rights holders have with the federal government stipulates they receive either 100 percent or 75 percent, depending on specific water conditions. There are no other provisions in the contract for differing amounts.
“In 2015 there was just no more water to be had,” Chedester said. “We got would we could from the San Joaquin and the Delta.”
In 2015 the Exchange Contractors made a legal call on San Joaquin River water from Millerton Lake after the Bureau of Reclamation failed to deliver a full allocation of northern California water to growers via the Delta.
That move left water users in the Friant Water Authority on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley without surface water for the various member districts from Chowchilla to Bakersfield.
As surface water deliveries were curtailed to growers, farmers pumped what they could from wells. This led the California Legislature to create the State Groundwater Management Act, a law to restrict groundwater pumping.
David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, an organization that represents Sacramento Valley water users, likewise called the federal water bill “a good step forward” to address California water issues.
He praised both the House leadership and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein for leading the charge on language to help California farmers.
According to Guy, the focus on the bill for California will be Delta water operations and the ability to move water through the Delta and into storage in San Luis Reservoir and for use by federal and state water users south of the Delta.
Guy also sees the possibility to help fund feasibility work related to the proposed Sites Reservoir in western Colusa County.
Salmon recovery efforts could possibly benefit from the bill as well, Guy believes.
“I think it’s a classic compromise bill,” he said.
First step in a long journey
Eventually Guy would like to see a similar model to federal water infrastructure funding that is now used in the transportation industry.
In short, this provides federally-backed loans to aid infrastructure projects across the United States.
“That’s something we would have liked to have seen in this bill,” he said.
Amaral agrees that this is a positive first-step and likens what was done as bandaging a massive wound to stop the bleeding. Now the surgical repairs can begin.
Congress must now address the issues that are causing water deliveries to be choked in California. This could include Endangered Species Act reform and possible changes to the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.
Chedester believes some of the more long-term fixes need to include and enforce a stronger reliance on current science in operational water decisions rather than the fear-based decisions that plagued the system last year and caused water managers to curtail water flows to agricultural and urban users.
For Chedester, this means Congress will need to revisit the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.
“That doesn’t mean it goes away,” he says. It just means that it isn’t working. They haven’t built anything in 10 years and have spent $200 million and have nothing to show for it except for a fish hatchery they’re building below Friant.”