Op-Ed

Congress is about to wipe out decades of progress in sustainable water use

As California enters its fifth year of official drought — and its ninth dry year in the past 10 — the elements of a modern, sustainable water system are finally taking shape. The state is improving water efficiency in agriculture and urban areas, expanding wastewater treatment and reuse, figuring out how to capture more storm water, and starting to monitor and manage badly over-drafted groundwater basins.

In Washington D.C., however, special interests are still pushing ineffective and inequitable water strategies. Nowhere is this tension between new water strategies and outmoded federal thinking more apparent than in the California drought legislation currently before Congress.

The federal government has a vital role to play in helping states address water problems: improving management of federal infrastructure, funding research of new technologies, setting standards for water-quality and appliance efficiency, as well as protecting the environment and marginalized communities. And yet none of those issues is the thrust of the two water bills now moving through the House and Senate. Instead, a California-centric bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a Western water bill sponsored by Rep. David Valadao both contain egregious, anti-environmental giveaways hidden behind modest provisions for modernizing California's water system.

The objective of these bills is not to strengthen California's ability to deal with drought, or to accelerate our transition to an efficient 21st century water system. Rather, both want to “maximize” the amount of water diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to a few federal irrigation contractors in the San Joaquin Valley. To do that, both propose undermining environmental protections for salmon and other endangered species. Under the California Delta Reform Act and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, supplying water for human use and environmental protection have been “co-equal” goals — but these laws weaken, if not abandon, that concept.

The proposed legislation also revises watershed rules for rivers in ways that could preempt or violate California's water rights laws. Meantime, they serve up pork-barrel federal funding for reservoirs that would produce little usable water, flood Native American cultural sites, or violate Wild and Scenic River protections.

The House bill, in effect, repeals the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act that Congress enacted a decade ago to resolve 18 years of contentious litigation between conservationists, multiple federal agencies and irrigation districts. It would preempt the California law that requires restoration of river flows and native salmon in the San Joaquin River and waive federal environmental protections such as the National Environmental Policy Act under a range of conditions. It would also actually harm farmers by canceling water supply and flood-control projects that benefit local agriculture.

Here's just one example of how the House bill would ride roughshod over existing environmental laws: One provision simply orders federal agencies to ignore a 2014 finding that the section of the San Joaquin River that would be destroyed by the proposed Temperance Flat Dam is eligible for federal wild and scenic river status. The Senate bill, too, would authorize violations of science-based rules put in place to protect endangered fish.

While the House version is more extreme, both bills approach California's entrenched water problems from the misguided idea that we can squeeze even more water out of an already overtapped system. Although the Senate bill promotes some sensible water management reforms, it still helps a small number of Central Valley farmers at the expense of other regions and water users.

When the Senate and House try to reconcile these two bills, these inappropriate provisions are likely to be made worse, not better.

Given these flaws, there is strong opposition to these bills from several corners. Scientists who labored to improve our understanding of California's tremendously complex hydrology and biology are dismayed that their work is being ignored by politicians. The fishing community, including both recreational and commercial organizations along the entire West Coast, sees a direct threat to a multi-billion-dollar industry dependent on healthy fish runs. Communities in northern California are worried that more water from their region will be diverted south. Environmental groups that struggled for years to put in place even modest protections for fish and bird habitat and wild and scenic rivers are aghast that their work would be undone. Native American communities are furious that proposed dams would flood their cultural sites.

Maybe this is the kind of “compromise” needed to pass any bill in today's polarized Congress. But the bad in these bills far outweighs the good. Congress could be about to wipe out decades of painstakingly achieved progress in order to repeat some of the most lamentable errors of mid-20th century western water policy.

Difficult steps are needed to deal with California's long-term water problems. But no bill at all is better than legislation like this that takes easy steps in the wrong direction.

Peter Gleick is a hydroclimatologist, President of the Pacific Institute, MacArthur Fellow, and member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 28, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Don't `maximize' water" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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