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President Obama Signs Water Bill With Big Ag ‘Poison Pill’ Rider

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

In a slap in the face to fishermen, Tribes, environmental justice advocates, conservationists and family farmers, President Obama on December 16 signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act into law with its environmentally destructive Big Ag rider sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

The controversial rider in the bill, opposed by retiring Senator Barbara Boxer, taints an otherwise good bill that sponsors water projects across the nation. The last minute rider, requested by corporate agribusiness interests, allows San Joaquin Valley growers and Southern California water agencies to pump more water out of the Delta, driving Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species closer and closer to extinction, according to Delta advocates.

The addition of the Big Ag rider to the bill caused a bitter rift between Boxer, one of the bill’s original sponsors, and Feinstein. The U.S. Senate approved the water bill by a vote of 78 to 21 on Friday, December 9.

Also known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, the bill authorizes water projects across the country to restore watersheds, improve waterways and flood control, and improve drinking water infrastructure, according to President Obama in his signing statement. The law also authorizes $170 million for communities facing drinking water emergencies, including funding for Flint, Michigan, to recover from the lead contamination in its drinking water system.

In addressing the controversial rider in the bill (Title III, Subtitle J) that supposedly addresses drought in California by allowing agribusiness interests to pump more water from the Delta, Obama warned against “misttating or incorrectly reading” Subtitle J’s provisions.

“Title III, Subtitle J, also includes short term provisions governing operations of the federal and state water projects under the Endangered Species Act for up to five years, regardless of drought condition,” said Obama. “Building on the work of previous Administrations, my Administration has worked closely with the State of California and other affected parties to address the critical elements of California’s complex water challenges by accommodating the needs and concerns of California water users and the important species that depend on that same water. This important partnership has helped us achieve a careful balance based on existing state and federal law. It is essential that it not be undermined by anyone who seeks to override that balance by misstating or incorrectly reading the provisions of Subtitle J.”

Obama also claimed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) would continue to be applied and implemented.

“Consistent with the legislative history supporting these provisions, I interpret and understand Subtitle J to require continued application and implementation of the Endangered Species Act, consistent with the close and cooperative work of federal agencies with the State of California to assure that state water quality standards are met. This reading of the short-term operational provisions carries out the letter and spirit of the law and is essential for continuing the cooperation and commitment to accommodating the full range of complex and important interests in matters related to California water,” Obama concluded.

Senator Boxer spoke out strongly against the bill on the Senator Floor last week. Boxer called the rider a “devastating maneuver” and a “poison pill” designed to undermine the Endangered Species Act by changing the restrictions on the amount and time that water could be delivered to agricultural districts, including the Westlands Water District, in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Under federal biological opinions, NOAA Fisheries biologists have determined flows to protect endangered and threatened species, including winter-run Chinook salmon and Delta and longfin smelt, that have nonetheless suffered dramatic declines due to the overpumping of water and poor management of Central Valley reservoirs during the recent drought.

Boxer also criticized the process in which the last minute rider was introduced, pointing out it illustrates why many Americans hate Congress. “One of the things they hate about Congress is when we have a special interest rider dropped on a bill,” Senator Boxer said in her speech on the Senate Floor on December 9, 2016.

In a letter asking President Obama to veto the bill, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta executive director, blasted the rider for the damage it would cause to fisheries and Delta water quality. “It will worsen water quality not only for San Francisco Bay-Delta fisheries, but for the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the Delta’s environmental justice communities,” she stated.

She warned that the rider “will lead to further water quality degradation in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, and set the course for future raids by Federal agencies on freshwater supplies from the Delta.”

“Our fear is that if we continue to take too much water from the estuary, the end result will be a public health crisis for the millions of people who live in the Delta, and the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the Delta’s environmental justice community,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “Over these last few years of drought, the Delta has seen a marked increase of toxic algal blooms, and without more cool water regularly flowing throughout the Delta, these outbreaks are expected to become a permanent feature of the Delta.”

Barrigan-Parrilla said the toxic bacteria from the algal blooms are a threat to: 1) groundwater wells that provide drinking and irrigation water to tens of thousands of people; 2) municipal drinking water systems that provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people; 3) subsistence fishers who in conservative estimates number between 20,000 and 40,000 residents of the Delta; 4) the ability of Delta farmers to safely irrigate their 500,000 acres of crops worth $5.2 billion annually; 5) and tens of thousands of recreational enthusiasts who regularly sportfish, boat, and swim in the Delta’s 1100 miles of open waterways.”

“WRDA will increase water exports, especially during drought periods, creating increased opportunities for the proliferation of these dangerous toxic algal blooms, and increase public health threats,” noted Barrigan-Parrilla.

The rider would also give greater power to the Secretary of Interior. For example, it authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to construct Federally owned storage projects that are cost-shared 50-50 with non-Federal parties.

“The bill’s signing is disappointing, but understandable given the presence of the Flint Michigan lead-poisoning response and the large number of water project authorizations for local Congressional districts in the WRDA,” said Ron Stork of Friends of the River.

“The bill tries to push more water into the south state, and may or may not succeed in that effort,” stated Stork. “But the bill also breaks traditional notions of federal water project approvals laid down by Ronald Reagan.”

“Instead it gives the incoming Trump Administration Secretary of the Interior a pretty free hand to move forward on any damn dam projects they chose to ‘authorize’ and push. So hold on to your wallets; there’s almost certainly going to be efforts to raid the federal and state treasuries to subsidize these monsters,” noted Stork.

“Ironically, for an emergency drought bill, most of the provisions are not tied to a drought but to the next five years whether wet or dry. And today it’s raining and snowing in the mountains and valleys of California,” he concluded.

Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, was appalled by passage of the bill with its rider.

“This is the tool California water districts need to deny the water for salmon and continue on with the Brown WaterFix for California,” said Chief Sisk in a Facebook post. “DiFi doesn’t care about all the fishermen, Tribes and fish consumers. This is the worst thing that President Obama could have done to the California water wars.”

You can expect fishing organizations, Indian Tribes, conservationists and environmental justice advocates to launch lawsuits contesting the rider’s controversial provisions. As Senator Boxer said on the Senate floor:

“My view about water is that everybody comes to the table. We work it out together. I don’t like the water war. He (Congressman McCarthy) has launched another water war battle for big agribusiness against the salmon fishery. It is ugly. It is wrong. It is going to wind up at the courthouse door anyway. Why are we doing this?”

The salmon industry is expected to be impacted dramatically by the rider, as the increased pumping of northern California water will result in further declines in collapsing salmon populations. California’s salmon industry is valued over $2 billion in economic activity in a normal season including economic activity and jobs in Oregon. The industry employs tens of thousands of people from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon.

It must be noted that Jerry Brown, who constantly receives fawning coverage from the mainstream media over his allegedly “green” policies, did absolutely nothing to oppose the rider in the bill. That makes perfect sense, since Brown is trying to fast track the construction of his legacy project, the Delta Tunnels.

This rider will only make it easier for the incoming Trump administration to work with Brown on building the tunnels, potentially the most environmentally destructive public works project in California, by weakening the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

More articles by:

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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