The political stakes are rising dramatically in the race to save California’s economy from a crushing drought that is among the worst in the past century. The U.S. Senate rejected an effort by three California Republicans–Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Reps. David Valadao and Devin Nunes–to insert a provision in the new farm bill that would divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Central Valley.
Farmers in the Central Valley have not received their full allocation of water since 2006, despite several years of good rainfall since them, largely owing to environmentalist fears about the fate of the endangered delta smelt, which swims into water pumps. The federal government issued rules to protect the delta smelt in 2008, owing to fears that the loss of the smelt could have a wider impact on the ecosystem of the delta as a whole.
California’s Democrats have tended to side with the environmental groups favoring restriction of irrigation. The cost comes in terms of fields left fallow, agricultural jobs lost, and rural communities devastated. Republicans, conversely, have tended to side with the farmers. Though McCarthy, Valadao and Nunes failed in their effort this week, they are considering alternative legislation that would prioritize human use of water resources.
Now, farmers are worried that the federal government could seize and divert water saved in the San Joaquin Valley in recent years for other purposes. The state’s Republicans–and Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein–are working to prevent that intervention, but it would be legal under current law. Conflicts between Republicans and Democrats, the state and federal government, and between different regions of California could deepen.