(* Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, 2017 – WIIN Act)
“There is no drought….If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that your farmers can survive” – Candidate Donald J. Trump, May 27, 2016, Fresno, California
“If we don’t move now, we run the real risk of legislation that opens up the Endangered Species Act in the future, when Congress will again be under Republican control, this time backed by a Trump administration.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), “Latest Compromise Drought Relief Bill Receives Praise, Opposition”, Capital Press, December 7, 2016.
President-Elect Donald J. Trump is poised to score a win-WIIN deal in the California water war as Congress has passed the bi-partisan Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act – Senate Bill 612). The bill passed by a vote of 78-21 on Saturday, December 10, after the Senate voted on it past midnight.
The force for breaking up the three-year political logjam of several water bills for California farmer drought relief is the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency. In the above-cited quote, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said the specter of Trump and a Republican Congress was the reason for bi-partisan passage of the bill. Previously, since late 2014, five Republican and four Democrat drought-relief bills have failed.
Back in May 2016, Trump claimed: “There is no drought” in California, only a man-made water shortage, which was widely ridiculed in the media as outrageous. But Trump looks like he was right, because the apparent reason that Democrats held up a California drought relief bill for three years was to extract some benefits for their constituencies in a political log rolling strategy. Water is a political football meant to extract concessions from the opposing party more than it is a natural resource to be managed. Withholding farm water is politically advantageous for Democrats and may have nothing to do with droughts.
On average California has four dry years for every one wet year that fills its reservoirs, but only a half-year of backup water yield stored in reservoirs. California’s “drought” is structural, not hydrological, but the media reports it otherwise.
Senate Bill 612 is a $5 billion infrastructure bill encompassing projects in California, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Dakota over the next two years. The California rider to the bill authorizes $558 million for water projects in various parts of the state, $335 million of which can go toward federally-owned water-storage projects or state-led groundwater or storage projects.
Obama will be under pressure to sign the bill because it includes $170 million in drinking water disaster relief targeted for Flint, Michigan, a Democratic Party stronghold. The Flint water pollution crisis resulted from the city’s failing to fund new water pipelines and treatment facilities even though the city had lucratively funded its pension system. President Obama declared Flint as a federally designated state emergency on January 5, 2016.
Another sweetener in the bill for Obama is $375 million in Ecosystem and Recreation funds for the Los Angeles River Restoration Project, which plans to create recreational and tourist venues similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk.
Moreover, 138 out of 188 House Democrats voted in favor of the bill.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has vowed to filibuster the California rider to the bill, but this will likely be a show to pander to California’s powerful environmental lobby. Recently, Boxer and Feinstein have been playing “good cop/bad cop” to their Democrat political base, with Boxer playing the bad cop who doesn’t want more water for farmers and Feinstein the good cop who does. Then, vice versa for the environmentalists. Now Boxer is a lame duck Senator who is retiring in January 2017 and has nothing to lose by opposing farm water. So, she claims that the bill is a fish killer, although there is a specific provision in the bill requiring no violation of the Environmental Protection Act.
The bill would allow the Trump administration to move ahead with dam building in the Western United States without further approval of Congress. But this will likely mean joint dam projects with the State of California, which requires that half of any of state funding must go to farmers and half for fish. Thus, only half of any new stored water would be able to go to farmers. Stated differently, the half of funding for water dedicated to the environment will be funded by the state, the other half for farmers must be funded from increased farm water rates.
Federal funding would provide only a small fraction of the $2.5 billion needed to add more water storage along the San Joaquin River by the proposed federal-built Temperance Dam. The dam wouldn’t be completed until 2024, even if it were not stopped by environmentalist lawsuits.
In the near term, the key provision in the WIIN bill would allow greater flexibility for federal water managers to release water to farmers during wet events and years than formerly allowed. According to Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy this could provide 900,000 acre-feet of water, enough to irrigate 300,000 acres of farmland. But this would be cut in half to 150,000 acres of farmland by the state’s 50/50 rule.
But would this federal water get to California farmers with junior water rights on the west side of California’s Central Valley when the state controls who gets the water (cities, farms or fish)? The unelected California Water Resources Control Board, under the control of Gov. Brown, is racing to adopt a 20-year plan to double the amount of water that flows from the San Joaquin River to the sea for fish before Trump appoints new federal water managers.
Should the Department of Interior designate an eight mile segment of the San Joaquin river as a “National Wild and Scenic River,” even though it winds through disturbed farmland and depends on substantial flood control management, this could keep the Temperance Dam from ever being built. And federal environmental agencies and environment-advocacy organizations could “kill” any project by tying it up in court for eternity.
This is why Kristi Diener of the California Water for Food and People Movement is calling for a state ballot initiative by no later than 2018 to dedicate firm funding for new farm water storage projects and relaxation of environmental permitting, as granted to solar energy projects in the state.
Although the Federal government provides five times the amount of reservoir and river water during dry spells than the state, it has little leverage over who gets it. During the past two years, farmers with junior water rights got only 5 percent of their water allocation.
But Trump holds some “trump” cards that were never played by Democratic administrations. He could hold up water for Southern California through the Colorado River Compact. He could still threaten to amend or abolish the federal Environmental Protection Act and delegate it to each state. And he could have some leverage with California’s recent implementation of an Energy Imbalance Market that needs to buy cheap, out-of-state federal hydropower to balance out the ramping down of solar power when the sun sets each day.
Trump is on the verge of winning the first battle of California’s never-ending political water war. But he might win the battle and lose the war if Gov. Brown is successful in diverting any of the new federal water to fish. A possible contingency of any federal funding of dam projects might be that any new developed water must be used for farmers during dry years and can’t be pooled or diverted otherwise in a “seemingly bottomless political trick bag full of hopeful water solutions (that) have come and gone.”