Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) penned an open letter to President Obama on Thursday urging an increase in water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to thirsty farms and communities in Southern California.
In a letter posted to her website on Thursday, Feinstein singled out the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for criticism, accusing them of considering a reduction in crucial water exports to avoid harming the Delta smelt population even as the current Pacific El Niño has contributed to the kind of healthy water flow levels unseen during California’s four-year-long drought.
“Despite these high flows, rather than pumping as much water as possible without undue harm to the smelt, pumping levels remained constant for the past month,” Feinstein wrote. “Coupled with the fact that only three individual smelt were caught at the pumps this year, and that the most recent trawls revealed no Delta smelt in the south Delta, it seems to me that the agencies operate the system in a manner that may be contrary to the available data, culled from what is already a limited monitoring regime.”
In January, Feinstein introduced a comprehensive $1.3 billion drought-fix bill in the Senate that aimed at compromise between California farmers and the state’s politically powerful environmental groups.
The California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act focuses on environmental protection programs for short-term relief, including the authorization of real-time monitoring to protect fish species and operational provisions that govern the usage of pumps to move water. The bill would also provide water agencies the ability to pump water at levels they see fit using real-time monitoring data, and also allows agencies the ability to increase pumping levels during winter months.
In her letter to Obama, Feinstein said that with its recent inaction to increase pumping from the Delta, federal water agencies had put thirsty California communities in a “catch-22.”
“Pumping is reduced when there are concerns about the presence of smelt caught as far away as 17 miles from the pumps,” she wrote. “Yet agencies will also reduce pumping due to the absence of smelt, based on the idea that historically low smelt populations make detection difficult.”
The state’s environmental interests have proven to be a thorn in Feinstein’s side before. In May 2014, a bill co-sponsored by both Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that would have maximized pumping levels in the Delta while still respecting limits designed to protect fish was waylaid by environmentalist groups. In a pointed rebuke of the bill’s critics, Feinstein lamented that environmentalist groups “have never been helpful to me in producing good water policy.”
“There are real-world consequences to the decisions being made in the Delta,” Feinstein concluded her letter to Obama. “69 communities in the Southern San Joaquin Valley reported significant water supply and quality issues. And land is caving, bridges collapsing, as a result of overdrawn ground wells and subsidence. That’s why we need to make sure we’re using every possible tool to make the right choices. Basing pumping decisions on better science and real-time monitoring is the least we can do.”
Also on Thursday, House Republicans – led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — issued a separate letter to Obama similarly urging an immediate increase in Delta water exports.
“It will take years and tens of millions of acre-feet of water to replenish our groundwater resources and for Californians’ lives to get back to normal. We cannot have Reclamation, FWS, and NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] making our recovery all the more challenging,” McCarthy wrote. “The time to act is now.”
Both Feinstein and the Republicans were responding to a new White House policy on drought announced earlier this week, which failed to mention increasing water provision to farms. One frame with whom Obama had met in a visit in 2014 said this week that he had been misled by the president.
After a disappointingly dry, hot February, renewed rainstorms brought on by the current Pacific El Niño in March have dumped billions of gallons of water into California’s largest reservoirs. The Sierra Nevada snowpack — which supplies one-third or more of the state’s annual water supply — sat at 88 percent of average as of Friday, but will likely fall short of what water experts have said is the 150 percent of average needed by April 1 to ensure reliable supply through the hot summer months.