Farmers score big win in water battle
Congress has approved a wide-ranging bill to authorize water projects across the country, including $170 million to address lead in Flint, Mich.’s drinking water and $558 million to provide relief to drought-stricken California.
The Senate approved the $10 billion bill, 78-21, early Saturday, despite complaints from some Democrats that the drought measure was a giveaway to California farmers and businesses. The vote sends the bill to President Barack Obama.
The extended drought has devastated California’s abundant farmland and forced families to cut back on water consumption. In the past two years, 35,000 people have lost jobs, 1 million acres of farm land have gone fallow and 2,400 private water wells have gone dry, while more than 100 million trees on federal land have died.
The Friant Water Authority, which operates and maintains the Friant-Kern Canal, was pleased to see the bill — the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act — now headed to the president.
“Passage of the WIIN Act represents critical and timely step toward addressing the acute water problems facing us locally in the droughtstricken areas of California, and important movement toward modernizing our water infrastructure nationally,” said Jason Phillips, Chief Executive Officer of the Friant Water Authority. “Although more must be done on this issue, under the circumstances we consider the actions mandated in the WIIN Act an important beginning in our efforts to develop a comprehensive, long‐term solution to address some of California’s persistent water challenges.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was one of the bill’s key authors, but found herself urging senators to vote no because of a last-minute rider that Boxer said puts the interests of big farms over the fishing industry.
Boxer, the senior Democrat on the Senate environment panel, is retiring after 24 years in the Senate and said she never imagined she’d end her career trying to scuttle her own bill.
“It’s bizarre,” she said, before launching into a full-throated attack on a provision brokered by two powerful Californians: Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Boxer called the measure the “Midnight Rider” and said it undermines endangered species protections for threatened salmon and other fish and will severely damage the fishing industry in three states — California, Oregon and Washington.
“It’s a beautiful bill — vote no,” said Boxer, who boasted that the measure included no fewer than 26 provisions to help California.
David Orth, Executive Officer of the Friant North Authority, praised the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans.
“The California water provisions of the WIIN Act are the product of hard‐fought bipartisan effort,” Orth said. “We spent nearly three years working with members in both houses, officials in both state and federal administrations, and the White House to develop effective compromise legislation that would be broadly acceptable to all.”
Feinstein, who has worked on the drought measure for more than a year, said the bill will increase water deliveries to farms and businesses devastated by the years-long drought, which she said has cost the state’s economy nearly $5 billion over the past two years.
Feinstein disputed Boxer’s claim that the bill would have a negative effect on fish and the environment. The measure merely requires state and federal agencies to use the best available science to control water flows to protect fish while ensuring water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and southern California, she said.
“After three years and dozens of versions of legislation, I think this is the best we can do,” Feinstein said.
The water-projects bill also includes language authorizing aid for Flint and other cities afflicted by lead in water, although money for the bill was included in a short-term spending bill given final approval late Friday.
The White House hasn’t issued a veto threat for the bill. Earlier in the week there was some concern about the new California language, but the White House said that the president would look at the entire bill in deciding whether to sign it.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.