H.R. 1837 Offers No Solutions for California’s Water Challenges

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Barry Nelson, Senior Policy Analyst, Water Program, San Francisco

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the June 2 House Subcommittee hearing on Congressman Nunes’ H.R. 1837 was the lack of focus on solutions.  California faces real water challenges, but the authors of H.R. 1837 have paid little regard to advancing effective solutions – or even to the impacts that this reckless bill would cause.  Here are a few examples.

Water Supply Reliability:  Water agencies south of the Delta want their supplies from the Delta to be more reliable.  But this bill would make state and federal collaboration in efforts to achieve this goal, such as the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, next to impossible and virtually eliminate any possibility that the state could ever issue permits for an isolated Delta facility.   

Climate Change and Earthquake Risks:  Climate change is likely to make California a somewhat drier place.  It will also cause sea level to rise, threatening Delta levees.  Earthquakes present another risk to Delta stability.  The Delta Stewardship Council is working to write a Delta Plan to address these major challenges.   400,000 Delta residents and South of Delta water users have a great deal at stake here.  H.R. 1837 doesn’t even mention these problems.  

Environmental Health and the Fishing Industry:  The Bay-Delta ecosystem is collapsing and the salmon industry is slowly recovering from a near-total shut down for the past three years.  H.R. 1837 would respond to this situation by blocking current science-based federal protections for the Delta’s fisheries, shutting down the consensus restoration of the San Joaquin River, pre-empting protections for the Delta under state law, and redirecting existing federal restoration funds to be spent instead on dam building and other potentially damaging water projects.   Simply put, H.R. 1837 is a formula for the permanent collapse of the Bay-Delta, unemployment in the salmon industry, and gridlock in collaborative efforts to find solutions. 

Promoting New Water Sources:  Water agencies know that they need to become less dependent on the Delta by investing in alternative water supplies.  In fact, state law requires this.   However, rather than encouraging conservation, water recycling and other proven solutions, H.R. 1837 would turn California’s water rights system on its head, taking water from senior water users – including cities and farms – to benefit late-arriving junior water users.   This water grab would overturn a century of federal water law.  That might be a boon for litigators, but it hardly represents a solution.  The provisions of this bill would harm fishermen, farmers and cities across the state.

California only has so many rivers and so much water.  If we lose our salmon runs, they’re gone forever.  Restoring healthy rivers and leaving reliable water supplies for the next generation is not a simple task.  But recent progress shows that it can be done.  The San Joaquin River settlement was a delicate, bi-partisan compromise among environmental groups, fishermen, the Friant Water Users Association, and the federal government.  The 2009 state water reform package represents a similar bi-partisan victory that advanced ecosystem health, water conservation, improved groundwater monitoring and a comprehensive approach to the Bay-Delta.   Senators Feinstein and Boxer recognized these facts in their excellent recent letter on H.R. 1837. 

As the old saying goes, it’s more work to build something than to tear something down.  Congressman Nunes’ approach is getting him plenty of air time on Fox News, but H.R. 1837 represents the triumph of attack politics over the hard work of designing workable solutions that will help California steward its water resources though the 21st century. 

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