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NorCal lawmakers call for opening up secret drought bill negotiations
by Dan Bacher
Tuesday Jun 24th, 2014 11:28 AM
“We are deeply concerned that it appears that negotiations with the House majority are being held out of the public eye. We believe the process by which Congress responds to this drought crisis should be transparent,” the members wrote. “Our constituents are rightly concerned about a closed-door approach that picks winners and losers amid California’s statewide drought, and they deserve a public discussion of the merits of the legislation being considered.”

Photo of Congressman George Miller, courtesy of George Miller's Office.
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NorCal lawmakers call for opening up secret drought bill negotiations

by Dan Bacher

Six Northern California Congress Members on June 23 called on Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to open up secret negotiations on controversial drought legislation that threatens salmon populations, family farmers and California Indian Tribes.

Representatives Jared Huffman, George Miller, John Garamendi, Jerry McNerney, Doris Matsui, and Mike Thompson on June 23 asked for "public and transparent negotiations" between the Senate and House on legislation responding to the historic California drought.

In a letter to California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, the members noted that "negotiations to date have left the public without adequate information or opportunities for input." Any compromise between the Senate drought response bill and the destructive House-passed bill, the members argued, would ultimately be harmful to California.

The House bill, H.R. 3964, severely undermines numerous state and federal statutes, would irreparably damage the Bay-Delta, degrade drinking water quality, and cost California thousands of jobs, according to the Representatives.

“We are deeply concerned that it appears that negotiations with the House majority are being held out of the public eye. We believe the process by which Congress responds to this drought crisis should be transparent,” the members wrote. “Our constituents are rightly concerned about a closed-door approach that picks winners and losers amid California’s statewide drought, and they deserve a public discussion of the merits of the legislation being considered.”

"The House majority has already demonstrated their intention to irresponsibly override state water law and decades of federal protections for clean water, fisheries, and northern California tribes, farms, and cities – all to benefit a select few," they said.

"The House-passed H.R. 3964 provides neither new resources nor useful tools, but instead undermines numerous state and federal laws, including: the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, and the California constitution and its public trust doctrine. We all agree that this would take California in the wrong direction, and the House majority’s draft Energy & Water appropriations bill would continue this harmful approach. Our state cannot risk the negative repercussions of trying to reconcile the differences between H.R. 3964 and S. 2016," they wrote.

The members also called for direct assistance to communities hurt by the drought, including farmworker and fishing communities. Neither the Senate nor House-passed bills provide any new funding for emergency drought relief projects, water recycling infrastructure, or conservation and efficiency projects, in contrast to the House Democrats’ bill and an earlier Senate bill, they wrote.

Feinstein is the primary author of the emergency drought relief bill, S 2918, that was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate in May. House Republicans passed their own, even more dangerous legislation in February that would waive Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections, repeal the restoration of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam and override the federal “wild and scenic river” designation for a short stretch of the Merced River.

Environmental groups, fishing organizations and Indian Tribes oppose Feinstein's bill, since they say it will enable more Delta water to be exported to corporate agribusiness interests on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley during the current drought.

Restore the Delta (RTD) on May 16 issued a strongly-worded statement criticizing Senator Feinstein for pushing S 2918 “to allow more water to be exported for Westlands’ and Kern Water Districts’ mega-growers in the midst of a severe drought.” The group also blasted Feinstein’s bill for posing a grave threat to Central Valley salmon and other fish populations and wildlife refuges.

“It is disappointing that Senator Feinstein has chosen to rush harmful legislation with no public hearings, debate or scrutiny, so that industrial growers who have planted tens of thousands of acres of almonds and other permanent crops in the midst of the past several very dry years,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. “Sen. Feinstein is using every tactic she can to aid these growers at the expense of the rest of California. There’s a better solutions, despite Sen. Feinstein’s statement that she has received no useful input on alternatives. She has received the input, but has ignored it.”

“Sen. Dianne Feinstein is rushing legislation through Congress that uses the current drought to make changes that undo critical protections for our salmon and other fisheries, and the people who rely on our river system. While it makes sense to take prudent steps to address the drought, it is unwise to use the current lack of water to do the bidding of mega-growers who want more and more water for permanent crops on unsuitable lands. That’s who gets most of the water in our public projects: huge industrial farming operations in the Westlands and Kern Water Districts. Sen. Feinstein is responding to the urging of these growers, many of whom have contributed mightily to her campaigns,” said Barrigan-Parrilla.

S 2918 is harmful to salmon migration, since it would lock in a 1:1 ratio of San Joaquin-San Francisco Bay Delta water inflow to water exports, according to Restore the Delta. This permits exporting water that can be diverted by massive pumps in April and May, and affects the San Joaquin River’s flow at a critical time when salmon and steelhead are migrating down the river to the ocean.

S 2918 also weakens protections for salmon and regulates the flow rate at which Old and Middle Rivers, two channels of the San Joaquin River that feed the Bay-Delta, can be made to flow in the reverse of their natural direction by the operation of the federal and state pumps that export water south. Those pumps redirect the flow of the Delta and pull millions of salmon and other fish to their deaths each year.

Between 2000 and 2011, more than 130 million fish were ‘salvaged’ at the State and Federal Project water export facilities in the South Delta, according to a white paper published by Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, on March 7, 2013. Actual losses are far higher. For example, recent estimates indicate that 5-10 times more fish are lost than are salvaged, largely due to the high predation losses in and around water project facilities.

Feinstein is pushing the dangerous legislation as Jerry Brown is fast-tracking the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels. The same agribusiness interests advocating for Feinstein’s legislation are the same ones promoting the construction of the tunnels.

The project, estimated to cost up to $67 billion, would hasten the extinction of Central Valley salmon, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Klamath and Trinity rivers.

The full letter from the Congress Members is below:

June 23, 2014

The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
United States Senate
331 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable Barbara Boxer
United States Senate
112 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senators Feinstein and Boxer:

We applaud you for your effort to produce workable solutions to California’s statewide water shortages, and for your leadership in expediting state and federal agencies’ response to the drought. The passage of S.2198 in the Senate has sent a strong message that California’s drought requires the highest level of attention and continued action, and we hope to continue to work with you as we push for solutions. However, we are deeply concerned that it appears that negotiations with the House majority are being held out of the public eye. We believe the process by which Congress responds to this drought crisis should be transparent.

The House majority has already demonstrated their intention to irresponsibly override state water law and decades of federal protections for clean water, fisheries, and northern California tribes, farms, and cities – all to benefit a select few. The House-passed H.R. 3964 provides neither new resources nor useful tools, but instead undermines numerous state and federal laws, including: the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, and the California constitution and its public trust doctrine. We all agree that this would take California in the wrong direction, and the House majority’s draft Energy & Water appropriations bill would continue this harmful approach. Our state cannot risk the negative repercussions of trying to reconcile the differences between H.R. 3964 and S. 2016. As the Los Angeles Times observed in their June 8th editorial, “a compromise between the two bills would be bad for California.”

We believe Congress should focus on solutions, and we cannot accept the destructive Valadao-Nunes approach, which flouts state and federal law, will irreparably damage the Bay-Delta, degrade drinking water quality, and cost our state thousands of jobs. We strongly urge you to prioritize providing the resources and additional tools that California needs to respond to this and future droughts, as both H.R. 4239 and your original S. 2016 would have done. Although we still have concerns with a provision from S. 2016 that remains in S. 2198, we believe both S. 2016 and H.R. 4239 have important provisions in common that would: directly assist communities harmed by the drought, including farmworker and fishing communities; provide funding for emergency drought relief projects; expand funding for water recycling infrastructure, conservation, and efficiency projects that can be rapidly brought online; ensure that drought damages are properly recognized under the Stafford Act; and reduce wildfire risk. Not one of these priorities is addressed by H.R. 3964.

Since neither H.R. 3964 nor S. 2198 received a public hearing nor considered by committees in open session, and a formal conference process is not possible at this point, we strongly urge you to conduct any further negotiations in public, and to seek comment from the relevant state and federal agencies, as well as tribes, recreational and commercial fishing interests, water managers, farms, counties, and cities. Our constituents are rightly concerned about a closed-door approach that picks winners and losers amid California’s statewide drought, and they deserve a public discussion of the merits of the legislation being considered. The changes envisioned between both bills are so great, and there are so many stakeholders at risk, it would be a great disservice if these decisions were made without transparency and public input.

Thank you again for your leadership.

Sincerely,

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