California Sen. Dianne Feinstein blasted environmental groups standing in the way of legislation she wants passed that would help California farms deal with the severe drought in the state.
Feinstein said environmentalists “have never been helpful to me in producing good water policy. You can’t have a water infrastructure for 16 million people and say, ‘Oh, it’s fine for 38 million people,’ when we’re losing the Sierra Nevada snowpack.'”
When she was queried if the environmental groups would resent her proposed legislation, she said, “Well, that’s really too bad, isn’t it? I would be very happy to know what they propose… I have not had a single constructive view from environmentalists of how to provide water when there is no snowpack.”
Feinstein’s bill, SB2198, which is also co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, would make it easier for farmers and cities to access water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. The bill has not gotten through the Senate yet, where it has lain dormant since February, because Feinstein needs all 100 senators to approve it in order to procure a quick vote. She is expected to use a “hotline procedure” next week that would enable her to see who is still voting nay. She said, “We will find out who the holdouts are.”
Feinstein wants to take her bill into conference with the House, because the GOP in the House passed a bill in February that would loosen environmental laws protecting endangered fish so farms could have more access to water.
Environmentalists and Democrats from the bay area are panicked at the thought of Feinstein’s bill interfering with the salmon run. They are telling Feinstein that she’s already done what is necessary by putting pressure on state water agencies to maximize their pumping.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said, “The truth is, she’s won. There isn’t any need to go forward with the legislation, which could be hijacked by some of our House colleagues and create bigger problems.” He added that Feinstein’s new bill is only confirming what has “been done administratively, because of her involvement and her legislation. So one could argue, as many of us did, that she ought to declare victory and not worry about the bill, but she’s interested in seeing it through.”
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, added, “The real danger I and others see moving forward is that this opens the door to a conference committee with a truly terrible piece of legislation in the House and that can only lead to a worse situation.” Bob Wright, representing Friends of the River, an environmental group, said Feinstein was using the drought to “cater to the wishes of powerful growers in Westlands and Kern County water districts.”
But Feinstein insisted that her bill would “maximize pumping” without circumventing the laws of endangered species protections “for the length of the emergency. And I suspect the emergency is going to go on some time.”
Critics of Feinstein’s bill assert that it would lock in complete diversion of the San Joaquin River until the drought is over, although similar diversions are already permitted during “critical dry years.”
Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist at the Bay Institute, said that the diversion already in place is damaging endangered steelhead trout and commercial chinook salmon. If next year is wetter, according to Feinstein’s bill if passed, river flows would still not be increased. Rosenfield said, “It’s either naivete and lack of understanding” of how the present laws work, “or opportunism to lock in low levels of protection even if water supplies increase next year.” He argued that Feinstein was wrong to accuse environmentalists of standing in the way of what’s best for the state, saying, “We’ve all spent vast amounts of time and resources to design a plan to upgrade California’s water infrastructure and increase water supply and reliability.”