State needs solid drought solutions, not mindless bills

Northern California received a blessing of rain this December. The storms may have knocked the lights out in half of San Francisco and taken down trees and flooded streets, but the state has needed this deluge like never before.

The rain is a welcome but only temporary respite from the serious water problems the Golden State faces. Even the downpours early in the month are just drops in the bucket. More than 90 percent of the state remains in severe drought.

Shortly into 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration declared a drought emergency and agencies and water experts began looking for solutions to the water crisis. California has been grappling with how to balance water needs within the state while protecting water quality, imperiled species and fragile ecosystems which all have been suffering from these unprecedented conditions.

At the heart of the state's water politics is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This winding maze of wetlands, farmlands, islands and waterways supplies water to millions of people across the state and is also home to hundreds of species of plants and animals, some found nowhere else on Earth. The delta has been at the center of a political struggle taking place far beyond the borders of the Golden State.

In the past 12 months, some members of Congress have made multiple attempts at enacting legislation to override protections for salmon and other native species. These bills would see that more water is pumped out of the delta to corporate agribusinesses in the arid Central Valley. If passed into law, this legislation would not only threaten thousands of salmon fishing jobs in the delta and beyond but would also undermine water quality for delta farmers and communities.

Weakening key environmental protections won't make it rain. It's record-breaking dry conditions across California and other parts of the West that are causing low water allocations, not safeguards for fish and other species. Yet the proponents of these destructive bills have used the drought to go after environmental protections they never liked all in the name of propping up a relatively small group of corporate agribusinesses. Such divisive steps won't solve California's water challenges — they will simply rekindle old battles over water in a thirsty land.

Of all the iterations of California water legislation we saw in the last Congress, House Resolution 3964 is the most illustrative of the type of legislation California doesn't need. H.R. 3964 passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in February. This bill constituted a wholesale assault on the delta ecosystem and the thousands of jobs that depend on a healthy delta, all under the guise of so-called drought relief. H.R. 3964 provided no durable solutions to address California's water needs, but instead would have dramatically weakened or eliminated federal protections for salmon and other native fish while also pre-empting state water law and water rights including any state regulation that reduces water supply. For those reasons and more, H.R. 3964 was opposed by Brown, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, as well as numerous fishing, farming and conservation groups.

As we head into the next Congress, we can expect more attempts to stick a straw in the delta for the advantage of a few. We must continue to fight here and in Washington to come up with real solutions that don't favor one moneyed group over the rest of the state, and which equip communities to be resilient through this and future droughts.

Marjorie Mulhall is a legislative counsel for Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law organization based in San Francisco.


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