PD Editorial: Getting a say on Congress’ water bill

For two years, Jared Huffman and fellow House members from Northern California have been shut out of negotiations on drought legislation in Washington.|

For two years, Jared Huffman and fellow House members from Northern California have been shut out of negotiations on drought legislation in Washington.

Take a look at the proposals flowing from their Central Valley colleagues, and you’ll understand why. Bills advanced by the House would weaken environmental protection and threaten endangered salmon, among other species, to further a single goal: diverting more water from the fragile Delta estuary into the aqueducts that serve Central Valley irrigators. The latest bill, unveiled last week, would again scrap restoration plans for the San Joaquin River.

Fortunately, none of these proposals stands much chance of becoming law. There’s resistance in the Senate - though not nearly enough from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein - and the Obama administration.

Huffman and some of his Northern California colleagues announced their own drought-relief bill this month, a welcome alternative to what the San Rafael Democrat sums up as “blame the fish” proposals backed by agri-business.

“After years of partisan theater and overreaching that pits some water interests against others in a zero-sum game, it’s time for Congress to get serious and stop treating California’s worst-ever drought as a political football,” said Huffman, the ranking Democrat on the House water, power and oceans subcommittee.

Given the political realities of the Republican-dominated House, this bill probably doesn’t stand much chance, either.

That’s too bad, because the authors are focused on stretching water supplies and improving management practices rather than undermining environmental laws and pitting one region against another in another water war.

Here’s another welcome difference. Unlike their Central Valley colleagues, Huffman’s group is inviting all interested parties, including the general public, to participate in crafting their legislation.

A 140-page framework is posted at Huffman.house.gov/drought, and the sponsors are encouraging people to make suggestions.

At present, the proposal includes $1.4 billion for water recycling, reclamation and storm water capture projects, cleanup of contaminated groundwater, watershed protection, efforts to limit evaporation from reservoirs and canals, a Justice Department crackdown on water theft for marijuana cultivation and an expanded X-prize to promote development of new desalination technologies.

The bill also would promote advance planning to ease the impact of future droughts and allow the Army Corps of Engineers to manage its reservoirs using sophisticated weather forecasting software instead of half-century-old policy manuals - a top priority for North Coast water managers tired of shortages exacerbated by ill-timed releases from Lake Mendocino.

“This is what a serious approach to western drought and water issues should look like,” Huffman said. He’s right.

The Central Valley proposal to gut environmental protection for the Delta won’t produce any more water. It would, however, lead to the destruction of prime Delta farmland and devastate natural habitat in the largest estuary on the West Coast of the America’s while undercutting the commercial fishing industry, a major contributor the North Coast’s economy.

If that’s all the help Congress can provide, California doesn’t want it. But a plan that extends scarce water supplies and positions California for the future is exactly the kind of help the state needs. If Congress can’t deliver it on its own, perhaps Huffman’s crowd-sourcing plan can break the logjam.

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