January 18, 2017

NEW FEDERAL WATER LAW: ‘Maximizing Water Supply’ Key Provision of Legislation

After a seemingly interminable length of time, in December of 2016, Congress passed and President Obama signed new federal water legislation that has already had an impact on water supplies in the state of California.

While it is not a panacea and much work still needs to be done to better manage the water supplies in California and the West, the legislation requires managers of government-controlled water to “maximize water supply” for the benefit of the population.

Western Growers CEO and President Tom Nassif immediately applauded the work of all involved in passing the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN).  “Even though it has taken us a while to get to this point, we are pleased that Congress has finally passed, and the president has signed into law, legislation that provides a measure of drought relief to rural communities and urban residents throughout California.  Thanks to three years of hard work and dedication by Senator Feinstein, House Majority Leader McCarthy, and our champions in the House, including Congressmen Calvert, Costa, Denham, Nunes and Valadao, we can now begin bringing aid to the thousands of businesses and millions of lives that have been devastated by a combination of Mother Nature and broken policies governing California’s water system.”

He continued: “We urge all stakeholders to recognize that the language in this law is the product of bipartisan, bicameral negotiations that provide temporary improvements to the operations of the Delta pumping plants while maintaining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act.  With California’s winter rainy season already upon us, it critical that we not prevent the reasonable diversion of all available runoff to storage.  Finally, we encourage Congress to continue working together—and with the new administration—during the next session to complete negotiations around longer-term, more permanent solutions to California’s water crisis.”

Nassif’s comments about capturing runoff for storage, in a nutshell, is the crux of the new legislation.  Dennis Nuxoll, Western Growers vice president of federal government affairs, who has been closely involved in this issue for the past three years, said the bill has two major components: it impacts how water supply is managed and it’s also an appropriations bill that authorizes spending on water infrastructure.  Immediately and practically speaking, it does direct government agency water managers to simply and proactively pump more water from Northern California, where it tends to originate, to the farms and cities of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.  “It legislates operational changes,” said Nuxoll.  “It directs agencies to pump more aggressively.”

He said that in times of rain and excess snow melt, agencies are required to maximize water supply.  That has not been the practice in the recent past.  In fact, last year, after many years of drought, California had a very wet start to its rainy season.  Instead of capturing high river flows and increasing the pumping of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the more arid south, much of that early rainfall went right through the Delta and out to sea.

It is this topic that gets Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of external affairs of the Westlands Water District, hot under the collar.  He flatly states that California “does not have a water supply problem.”  Instead he argues that the supply that the state does have is “horribly mismanaged” and points to the millions of acre feet of water gone out to sea last year as exhibit one.  Though one might think that the lessons of last year were learned, he noted that the same issue has been repeating itself this season.  Lake Shasta, he noted, has been well above normal capacity throughout the summer and fall.  That extra water, he said, could have been pumped south and stored, making room for the heavy rains that came early in the 2016/17 water year.  Instead, water managers held that water back and did not increase activity at the pumping stations.  Consequently, Shasta as well as Folsom, required flood level releases in mid-December, again losing water that could have been saved.  “It makes zero sense,” he argued.

But Amaral said this legislation does create a bit of light at the end of tunnel.  Speaking to Western Grower & Shipper on Monday, Dec. 19, he noted that the new law was signed by President Obama on Friday, Dec. 16, and already pumping had been increased.  The Westlands executive fully expects the water managers in charge to follow the letter of the law and maximize water supplies through increased deliveries.  In fact, he noted that once the bill was signed, a notice from the Bureau of Reclamation was sent to its employees informing them of the new law and new requirements.

Amaral cautioned, however, against taking a quick snapshot of pumping activity and drawing a conclusion.  “What has happened since the law was signed is promising.  But I plan to take a look at this (pumping) in 30-day windows and see if there has been a determinable difference in two-, three- and four-week periods.”

He said for the last eight years, the bureaucrats in charge have looked at water supply in a totally different way than he expects will occur under a Donald Trump Administration.  “There will be a host of new people at the Bureau (of Reclamation) implementing this law.”  He said the language of the law is very important, but it also will help to have more friendly bureaucrats making the interpretations.

Under the new law, the language calls for maximizing water supply unless scientific proof exists that the increased pumping is, in fact, harming endangered species.  The language in the law appears to shift the burden of proof, allowing for increased water flow unless it can be scientifically proven that harm is occurring.  In the past, the burden appeared to go in the other direction.  Increased water flow was presumed guilty until proven innocent…virtually an impossible task.

Nuxoll said the bill basically is a “scalpel rather than a sledgehammer.”  It gives those arguing for increased water pumping an extra level of support.  He said there will certainly be court challenges to increased pumping by environmental activists.  But the judge in any such case will be able to look at this law and see the intent of Congress…giving proponents of better water management a new tool to fight for extra water.

The Western Growers executive also looked at the part of the bill that authorizes appropriations for water infrastructure projects.  He noted that the law approves the use of $500 million but does not actually appropriate the funds.  That work will be up to the new Congress and the new president.  He said the bill passed with such overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and the House that there does appear to be consensus on dealing with the water supply issue in the West.  Nuxoll expects members of the Trump administration dealing with this issue to be more supportive of farmers and cities getting increased water supplies and less supportive of uses for threatened species.

Amaral stated the same thing, noting that when President-elect Trump was running for office, he twice visited California stating that he would solve the storage problem.  Additionally, the appropriations in the new law carve out sections for habitat improvement projects as well as matching funds for infrastructure.  As Nassif pointed out, Congress has lots more work to do.

Amaral argues that it is a very simple proposition at its core: “Farmers, farmworkers and cities should have the water they need.”