Will Feds Change Water Policy in California?

We certainly hope so and this article from UC Berkeley’s California Magazine, though decrying the possibility, notes that it will probably happen, good news for the common sense approach to water policy.

An excerpt.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent lawsuit against the State of California over immigration isn’t just about immigration, of course. More fundamentally, it’s about the limits of states’ rights. The move could be a harbinger of other attempts by the Trump administration to muscle obstreperous states that don’t conform to its agenda. And that begs the question: in what other areas could the feds trump, so to speak, California policies?

Water is a strong candidate. The State of California is ingeniously plumbed with a vast array of reservoirs, canals and aqueducts, largely managed through one of two massive systems:  the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP). Both suck water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and are often operated congruently to maximize efficiency. The main point of all this hydrological hardware is to move water from places where it’s abundant—mainly the north, which drains its rivers into the Delta—to the parched farms and cities of Southern California. Such transfers, however, have been somewhat constrained in recent decades by a number of state and federal accords that provide water for environmental purposes, e.g., to help sustain various imperiled species, particularly salmon.

Trump made it clear during his campaign that he was irritated by such fish-hugging folderol, siding instead with San Joaquin corporate farmers who were demanding more water.  In general, state water policy has been more responsive to environmental and urban stakeholders than to federal policy. So now, with California apparently sliding into a new drought, the question is percolating: could the feds bigfoot California over water, as is happening with immigration?

“Since the 19th Century, water law historically has been left to the states—the federal government typically has been deferential.”

Short answer: yes. And there was a recent legislative attempt to do just that. Last year the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 23, a bill that would strip many of the environmental safeguards governing the operation of the CVP.

“It would preempt California water law, which is unusual in a number of respects,” said Holly Doremus, a Berkeley Law professor and environmental law authority. “Since the 19th Century, water law historically has been left to the states—the federal government typically has been
deferential, and that includes the rights of western states to appropriate water, even from federal land.”

In fact, the National Reclamation Act of 1902—which laid the groundwork for water development in the American West—specifies that states generally are in charge of water rights, including those that pertain to federal reclamation projects within their borders. But while the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that this statute applies broadly, it also ruled that there could be an exception of sorts:  state authority on any given project was only supreme to the extent that it didn’t conflict with a congressional directive. But, if Congress wants to change the ground rules for the CVP specifically, it can. And H.R. 23 would do just that. Doremus calls the bill the “anti-Central Valley Project Improvement Act,” a reference to a groundbreaking law passed in the 1990s that slapped tough environmental restrictions on the CVP.

“It would reverse the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, and in fact goes much farther than a reversal,” Doremus says. “It basically exempts the CVP from the U.S. Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental law.”

If enacted, then, H.R. 23 could have devastating environmental consequences, particularly for the already beleaguered salmon runs that utilize the Delta and its rivers.  But while H.R. 23 passed the House with a lot of momentum, it bogged down when introduced to the Senate, where it was referred to that body’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Opposed by California’s U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, it’s unlikely to go anywhere soon, says Doremus.

“The Senate is a more deliberative body than the House, and you’d need 60 Senators to get behind this legislation to get it passed,” Doremus says. “Given the upcoming election, I don’t see it going anywhere this year.”

That could change if Republicans manage to hang on to the House and keep, or slightly increase, their lead in the Senate—a possibility, despite all the talk of a “blue wave” building among the electorate. But the U.S. Congress isn’t the only potential impediment to the primacy of state water law, says Doremus. Trump has been remarkably successful in placing conservative judges in the federal judiciary, from the nomination of Supreme Court  justice Neil Gorsuch through the lower courts.

Retrieved March 15, 2018 from https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/just-in/2018-03-13/could-feds-bigfoot-california-over-water

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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