As State Suffers Thirst, California Bureaucrats Keep the Pumps Off

Drought farm (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — California farmers, agricultural workers, and elected officials packed the hearing room at the headquarters of the State Water Resources Control Board in downtown Sacramento on Wednesday morning. The agenda: comments and complaints related to Board executive director Tom Howard’s rejection of a temporary order that would increase water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the drought-ravaged southern two-thirds of the state.

It started on February 3, when Howard denied a portion of a Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP) that would allow for much-needed increased water pumping during February and March. The TUCP was originally filed by the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in response to a particularly dry January across the Golden State, with rainfall totals in some Bay Area cities hovering perilously close to zero.

The TUCP enjoyed federal support, most notably from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has worked to curtail water pumping in the past. So it came as something of a surprise when Water Resources Control Board director Tom Howard denied the portion of the petition that would allow the pumps to resume operation on a temporary basis through February and March.

Howard’s decision seemed to be predicated on a letter the Board had received from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a liberal environmental group, earlier this month. According to the Wall Street Journal, the NRDC’s letter to Howard called the petition “biologically unjustified,” and claimed the pumping would create a “potential additional risk of entrainment” of fish–a claim the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service had disproved in their initial petition to the Board.

The pushback on Howard’s decision began last week, when two separate coalitions of California lawmakers from both sides of the aisle penned letters urging the Board to reverse its director’s decision. On February 11, Republican State Senators Andy Vidak, Anthony Cannella, Jean Fuller, and Tom Berryhill, along with Assemblymembers Shannon Grove, Adam Grey, Devon Mathis, Jim Patterson and Rudy Salas, wrote to Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus asking for a reversal–or, at the very least, a scientific explanation for the Board’s denial.

“It is unclear to us why Mr. Howard disregarded the scientific and biological conclusions of the State and federal scientists and replaced them with his own view,” the group wrote. “While we recognize that the Board has a responsibility to act independently to balance California’s competing needs for water, it is not clear why Mr. Howard ignored the advice of the State and federal agencies charged with protecting fish and wildlife.”

A federal bipartisan coalition of Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein and GOP Representatives Kevin McCarthy, Ken Calvert, Jim Costa, Jeff Denham, Devin Nunes and David Valadao wrote a similar letter, arguing that “the Executive Director should not have rejected the agencies’ shared assessment and denied the export adjustment in the TUCP without a compelling rationale for taking such an extraordinary action.”

The Board members seemed nervous before Wednesday’s session. Chairwoman Felicia Marcus told the hundreds in attendance at the standing-room only forum to “be compassionate, not combative” in their arguments, and urged cooperation to “deal with this terrible situation.”

“There is plenty of pain to go around,” Marcus said.

Nowhere is that pain more acutely felt than in the Central Valley, where California’s punishing three-year drought has wreaked havoc on agricultural water allocation and crop growing.

“I really wish you would all come down to my district and see what’s happening,” said state Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford), citing the “real human suffering” the drought has caused his 14th District constituents.

“This is a damaging decision,” added Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres). “We’ve got to make decisions to balance the needs of both people and wildlife. We have to take into consideration what the experts have said.”

After the elected officials spoke, representatives from the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP) took over with graphs, charts, and tables illuminating the scope of California’s drought. The Board then heard from farmers and agriculture workers who need the increased pumping to keep operations stable.

And yet the Board will not act on the order–yet. That was made clear at the start of the meeting, and in follow-up emails to Breitbart News.

“At this point I do not know what will happen,” executive director Howard said in an email. “We will take an order to the Board as soon as we can put one together.”

Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus was similarly noncommittal.

“Can’t say what we’ll do,” Marcus said. “Asked for follow up on a number of items in response to what we heard. Not an action hearing, but an illumination one.”

The Board has several options. It could overturn Howard’s initial denial, or it could choose to keep the pumps off. It could also decide to sit on the petition for another month–rendering it useless, as the pumping increase would only be in effect through the end of March.

However, if the Board does decide to keep the pumps off, it must explain to the Central Valley constituents–who did not cast votes for them–why their assessment differs from that of at least three separate federal wildlife agencies.


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