By Jason KUROSU
One month after declaring a drought emergency, Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democratic leaders introduced a $687.4 million aid plan in response to California’s drought, a package that will be countered with a water bill that Republicans are hoping to pass in the House of Representatives this week.
Though California is no stranger to droughts, the state is suffering through the driest year on record. The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, California’s two major water providers, will not be giving water to California farmers this year. This will mark the first time the State Water Project has not delivered water to California farmers in its 54-year history. Additionally, the Central Valley Project will only be sending 50% of contracted water supplies to urban areas.
The recently announced drought package would attempt to combat the water shortage with funding for water conservation and clean drinking water projects. The package will be funded by voter approved bonds dating back to 2006, which are intended for water and disaster preparation. This portion accounts for $550 million, while the rest of the package includes food and housing assistance for those most drastically affected by the drought, grants to water agencies for greater efficiency with irrigation and pumping systems and an emergency drinking water fund to provide a surplus in case of future droughts.
Meanwhile, House Republicans sponsored their own bill, HR 3964, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act. HR 3964, which passed on Feb. 5, was sponsored by Rep. David Valadao will send water from projects for fish and wildlife to Central Valley Project water users. The bill also repeals the San Joaquin River Settlement Agreement that sought to restore water flows and salmon runs to the river, both of which were affected by the construction of a nearby dam. According to the executive summary of the bill, the agreement will be replaced “with a more environmentally sustainable and economically feasible habitat restoration program.”
Though the bill is not expected to pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate, its introduction has not halted partisan tensions. Democrats have painted the bill as an attempt to win over voters in drought-ridden swing districts, namely those in the Central Valley. Republicans have complained that Brown’s package lacks a long-term solution and does not do nearly enough to provide protection for a potential drought in the future (Brown’s package allocates $15 million for emergency water shortages out of $687 million in total funds).
Republican lawmakers also contend that part of the problem lies with reduced water to Central California farmers after the Fish & Wildlife Dept. issued a biological opinion stating that the Central Valley Project and State Water Project would jeopardize the Delta smelt. The opinion states that water flows from the two water projects have altered the habitat of the smelt “and may have facilitated the invasion of dense populations of exotic species that have significantly changed delta smelt prey dynamics.” The Delta smelt was listed as a threatened species in the Endangered Species Act of 1993 and was recording its lowest population numbers since 1967 at the time of the opinion.
Water supplies were reduced in 2013 as a result and the drought debate has taken on a “humans vs. fish” narrative.
The drought has drawn attention from Washington as well. President Obama met with governors from states affected by droughts and wildfires, and announced that his next budget proposal will include funds for those affected by the drought. These include funds for farmers who have lost livestock and food banks for families affected by the drought.