Farm Press Blog

Why did Feinstein block emergency water plan?

  • Farm Bill passes without emergency plan to preserve reservoir water.


Proof that nothing escapes the realm of the political – especially water and drought, an effort to better use very limited water resources in California apparently died during the Farm Bill debate.

California Representatives Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and David Valadao, all San Joaquin Valley Republicans, successfully inserted language into the House version of Farm Bill to ostensibly help California residents during an unprecedented drought.

The language was successfully removed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein prior to consideration in the Senate. The move was akin to an act of war against California residents, according to a Fresno-based radio talk show host.

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The emergency measure would have done two things, according to Johnny Amaral, chief of staff for Rep. Nunes. First, it would have stopped San Joaquin River Restoration flows from Millerton Reservoir near Fresno. Second, it would have allowed for the Delta pumps that were shut off to protect a tiny fish to be turned on and operated in accordance with the Bay Delta Accords. The pumps provide irrigation water to much of the San Joaquin Valley.

The fight is not over, however. Amaral says Nunes will introduce a bill today (Jan. 29), which must go through the committee process then to the House floor for a vote. Success in the Senate is not guaranteed.

Given that flows into Millerton are about one-fifth of the federally-mandated outflows as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Act, the emergency measure was arguably needed to keep from draining the lake dry within the coming months as California deals with a serious drought. Millerton continues to lose about 1,000 acre feet of water a day because of these inequities. As of Jan. 28 storage in the reservoir was just over 200,000 acre feet.

The San Joaquin River Restoration Act is the result of a 2006 settlement to an 18-year lawsuit to provide sufficient fish habitat in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam. Fair enough, except that the river channel has been dry for so long that river water can’t reach the Delta, which is where the historic river channel goes.

Facts and common sense aside, Feinstein and California’s other U.S. Senator, Barbara Boxer, carried legislation that was passed in March 2009 to implement the settlement.

Instead of flowing to the Delta, water from Friant Dam makes it just past Fresno before it percolates into the ground to recharge Madera County aquifers. While this is good news for the growers who pump in the region, it’s not enough to allow migrating salmon an unobstructed trip from the Delta up the San Joaquin, which is arguably what the measure aims to do.

Friant Dam also provides water for the Friant-Kern Canal system, which supplies irrigation and drinking water to residents in the San Joaquin Valley.

The grand irony is Feinstein has enjoyed significant financial support from and the endorsement of California agriculture pretty much since she was first elected to the office in 1992. It makes one wonder: how has all that financial and voter support paid off for California agriculture? 

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