California Water Wars Smack Down

The Great Central Valley has apparently had enough of the Federal government and environmental advocates for the Delta Smelt shutting off the water spigot thus killing the agribusiness economy and threatening the water supply for Southern California.

Perhaps, I exaggerate—but not much.

The smack down this week was word from Senator Dianne Feinstein that she would attempt to insert into a must-pass bill in Congress (any bill will do) a provision to increase the water allocations for Central Valley farmers to 40% of what they got last year.  This would be up from the 10% allocation they are limited to under a Federal Court injunction in a pending environmental lawsuit.

California is no stranger to water conflicts and solutions always seem to break down in the politics of advocacy on the many sides of this issue.  Dianne has always had a keen interest in the water issues dating back to her time as Mayor of San Francisco when environmental groups tried several times to scale the Hetch Hetchy water system with legal and political action to restore the pristine nature of the watershed made famous by John Muir himself.

Not even liberal San Francisco would stand still for that “let them drink bottled recycled water” outrage.

Feinstein has always been the “go to” person for water issues and the rest of the California Congressional delegation generally follow her lead.  Nancy Pelosi recognizing that no political good can come from getting involved in California water issues has stayed out of it.  Barbara Boxer can usually be counted on to be a reliable vote for whatever the environmental advocacy groups wanted—one reason she is in DEEP TROUBLE in her re-election effort this Fall.  So Dianne has always provided “adult supervision” when needed.  And it looked like this is one of those times.

Governor Schwarzenegger, to his credit, had been a persistent advocate of additional water supply and water development to fix the Delta and assure adequate water supply for California’s future.  His problem is the state cannot afford the $10 billion in bond projects California needs right now.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Feinstein decided to get involved after Stewart Resnick, owner of Kern County’s Paramount Farms, and a big time supporter of Democrats complained that “sloppy science” by federal wildlife agencies was causing farm water shortages.   Last Fall, Feinstein asked the Obama administration to get the National Academy of Sciences to review the biological opinion process.  [1]

We don’t know why Dianne decided to preemptively act. Maybe the NAS was about to tell her the opinion process was fine.  Or maybe, the Central Valley farmers convinced her they were going under.  Whatever the reason, her action shocked environmentalists and Democrats.

So what?

The biggest problem with the Federal and State environmental laws today is the lack of balance of environmental and other public interest factors such as the economic reasonableness of the actions taken.  Federal resource agencies and environmental advocates have no fiduciary responsibility for the consequences of their advocacy and thus no incentive to resolve the issues in dispute.

Biological opinions issued to support such actions are often subject to challenge, but the defendants in the environmental litigation own the practical burden of proving them wrong. I’ve written before of my own firsthand experience negotiating a settlement of the Mokelumne River hydropower relicensing issues in the mid-1990’s.  The ONLY WAY we got a settlement was for the Utility to spend whatever it took to “own the science” on the river.  That meant we had to convince the Feds that were prepared to go to court to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the biological opinions issued by US Fish and Wildlife and CA Fish & Game were flawed and why.  In the end, we got a settlement because the resource agencies feared the precedent of having their opinions overturned as faulty more than they worried about the habitat or biological issues on the river.

As we have seen, the public broadly supports our environmental objectives but often feels that those goals are being used to pursue political agendas without much regard for the economic costs and consequences.  In this case, California’s multi-billion dollar agribusiness sector has been virtually shut down and the water supply for much of Southern California threatened by actions to prevent the Delta Smelt from being sucked into the water conveyance pumps.

Dianne may just be playing hardball to get both sides to settle.  Or she may recognize that the current stalemate is doing more harm than good for everyone.  Whatever the reason, her action to end the impasse is timely and wise.

The problem is we are woefully short of politicians with the good judgment and common sense of Dianne Feinstein.  My senior senator is a class act.