PD Editorial: President Obama should veto this harmful water bill

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As feared, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has cut a deal with Congressional Republicans on legislation that will take much-needed water from Northern California’s fragile waterways — and its vulnerable fish — and hand it over to farmers and businesses in the Central Valley. To make matters worse, the deal was attached to a politically popular bill that sailed through the U.S. Senate early Saturday.

The comprehensive measure, which gives the go-ahead to some 30 new infrastructure projects around the country, now heads for the Oval Office. But if President Barack Obama is willing to stand by his strong environmental convictions, he will veto it. In a rarity for California politics, Feinstein’s efforts put her at odds with fellow Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer, a champion of environmental stewardship who is retiring next month. She vowed to defeat the bill in the Senate but was unsuccessful.

The original bill included support for a host of important water projects around the nation. It would authorize $170 million to Flint, Michigan to address problems of lead in that city’s drinking water. It also has $558 million to help California deal with its ongoing drought. Projects slated for the state include water desalination, recycling and storage.

Boxer not only supported the package, she was one of its original authors. But at the last minute, Feinstein got together with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House majority leader from Bakersfield and inserted the controversial drought-relief language. They agreed to divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Central Valley. If the bill becomes law, farmers and ranchers could demand maximum pumping from the delta.

The long-term environmental effects could be devastating. The delta already is stressed by recent drought conditions. Fish, particularly salmon, would suffer the most, bringing additional harm to struggling fishing communities. Feinstein sided with the needs of farmers, who already consume more than three-quarters of the state’s water, over fishing communities and environmental groups.

That isn’t just a local threat. Oregon’s Peter DeFazio opposed the revised bill because fishing communities in his state benefit from healthy salmon habitat, too.

Feinstein and McCarthy also agreed to eliminate congressional oversight of dam building. Instead, the Trump administration will have a much stronger hand in deciding how much deference to give to the environment when it comes to dams. Environmentalists should prepare for the worst.

The Obama administration has expressed misgivings about the effects on Californians and native habitat, but a White House spokesman has hedged on whether the president would veto. Instead, Obama reportedly will judge the entirety of the bill.

Admittedly, it would be difficult for the president to veto a bill that includes funding for Flint and many other worthwhile projects. Nonetheless, we encourage him to summon the courage to do so and make clear that assistance for some parts of the country should not come at the expense of others. Send the bill back and ask Feinstein to help pass a clean one.

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