California Lawmakers Push Senate Bill to Ship Water South During Drought

Campbell Creek, a Tributary to the Trinity River flows low for this time of year despite a storm that brought several inches of needed rain to northern California./Photo by Kristan Korns, Two Rivers Tribune.

By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune

With severe drought gripping the Western United States, several Hoopa tribal officials are in Washington D.C., where the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee is debating a bill designed to “maximize water supplies for famers.”

The California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 was sponsored by California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, along with Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley on February 11.

Tribal Vice Chairman Ryan Jackson said, “This is possibly an attempt to legislate some of the provisions of the KBRA [Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement].”

The KBRA, paired with the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), was part of an arrangement which supporters claimed would dismantle four dams owned by PacifiCorp, guarantee water for irrigators, and reintroduce salmon to parts of the Klamath River currently blocked by the dams.

Humboldt County and 41 other entities originally signed the agreement, including local and state governments, federal agencies, Klamath Basin farmers, PacifiCorp, and three of the seven tribes in the area.

The agreement, which would have required California taxpayers to pay $200 million of PacifiCorp’s out-of-license dam removal costs, was opposed by the Hoopa Valley Tribe as an elaborate scam. The agreement has since died.

“We’re not waiting for stuff just to happen – we’re getting out front on this,” Jackson said. “We want to be sure there are adequate protections for Hoopa tribal rights, Trinity River fisheries and restoration programs.”

California is entering the third year of a drought – the worst since 1976 – with no end in sight. Despite recent showers, the state’s major reservoirs are at only one-third of capacity and snowpack in the Sierra Mountains is at only 29 percent of normal.

Feinstein said, “The drought has the potential to devastate Western states, especially California.”

“We must focus on streamlining federal programs and provide what assistance we can to those farmers and communities being hit the hardest,” Feinstein said, highlighting the threat to California’s $44.7 billion agriculture sector.

The bill would set aside $300 million for drought assistance, including $100 million in emergency assistance to farmers and $100 million for “projects to rapidly increase water supplies.”

A careful reading of the draft of the bill shows that “projects to rapidly increase water supplies” most likely means tunnels and canals to speed the delivery of existing water from Northern California to Central Valley farmers and Southern California cities, rather than cloud seeding or desalination plants to create new water.

According to the draft’s Section 103 on emergency projects, “The Secretaries shall provide the maximum quantity of water supplies possible to Central Valley Project and Klamath Project agricultural, municipal and industrial, and refuge service and repayment contractors.”

Craig Tucker, the Klamath Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said, “A lot of these drought bills address economic hardship for farmers but fail to address the current and ongoing affects of drought on fishing communities.”

“There are no good solutions to drought on the Klamath side,” Tucker said. “The Klamath Project irrigators may not get any water at all this year and there still won’t be enough water for the fish.”

Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), agreed that there are severe water shortage problems.

“All of California is over-appropriated; there are between five and six times more water rights than there is actual water, even in normal years,” Spain said.

Spain said Feinstein’s Senate bill was a reaction to bill HR 3964 sponsored by Representative David Valadao (R-California). It passed in the House of Representatives on February 5, but isn’t expected to pass the Senate.

HR 3964, also known as the San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, would eliminate Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for fish in the area and would redefine “reasonable flows” from flows that support fish survival to flows that support “competing consumptive uses of water.”

Cosponsor Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-California), said, “The entire California Republican delegation in the House introduced legislation to put families before fish.”

Jackson said it was unclear whether or not the Senate bill was a more subtle attempt to do the same thing. He added that Section 112 of the draft bill seems to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to make agreements and contracts that affect tribal fishery resources held in trust.
“We’re doing our due diligence and our staff is going over the bill,” Jackson said.

Attorney Tom Schlosser, who represents the Hoopa Valley Tribe on water and other issues, said, “The language is very ambiguous.”

“It could be an attempt to reduce federal trust responsibility,” Schlosser said. “Of course, the Tribe’s not going to stand for that.”

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