H.R.1837 (Nunes): A waste of time and money that undermines real progress

At a time when water resource conflicts are common throughout the West, the San Joaquin River Restoration Program is a rare example of farmers, water districts, state and federal agencies and environmentalists working together to implement real solutions to problems facing the region.  Just as rare is the bi-partisan support that enabled the federal legislation for the restoration program that included the Bush Administration, the Schwarzenegger Administration, Senators Feinstein and Boxer and Congressmen Radanovich, Cardoza, and George Miller.  The largest water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley, including the Friant, Westlands, Kern and Exchange Contractor water districts, also pledged their support along with over a dozen fishing and environmental groups.  Few efforts in recent history have brought together such a diverse set of interests in support of restoring a river.  Given this level of support, the focus should be on how to achieve the highest level of success for all stakeholders and not wasting time trying to argue again whether to restore the river.

However, on June 2 the House of Representatives Water and Power Subcommittee will hold a hearing on H.R. 1837, introduced by Congressman Nunes (R, Visalia), that seeks to undermine this broadly supported effort by overturning the historic 2006 consensus agreement that transformed an 18 year legal battle into one of the largest river restoration and water management projects in the nation.  H.R. 1837 would likely force all parties back into court, resulting in a massive waste of time and money. The bill will only delay much- needed and broadly supported  improvements in water supply and flood management in the San Joaquin Valley and the restoration of California’s second largest river.

Working together, the Restoration Program has made significant progress toward achieving its intended restoration and water supply management goals in five short years – all of which H.R.1837 would throw away in exchange for more years of legal battles. To date, the Restoration Program’s achievements include:

Restoration and Water Supply Projects – The Restoration Program has completed a draft programmatic environmental document that reflects years of planning and designing to build over $500 million in water supply, habitat restoration and flood management projects. 

Interim Flow Releases In October 2009, for the first time in over a half century, interim flows for fish and wildlife were released from Friant Dam.  Because the river had been largely dry for 60 years, achieving this major milestone has provided important information regarding fish habitat conditions, flood management, and opportunities to recirculate flows and improve water supply management.

Water Management A plan for a program to recirculate and reuse restoration flows is nearly complete and in 2010, almost 50,000 acre-feet of interim flow releases were recirculated back to Friant water districts to reduce water supply impacts.  A draft feasibility study to provide $35 million in improvements to water supply canals is being finalized.  In collaboration with local water agencies, the Restoration Program is also completing designs for a $20 million fish screen that it will construct to protect water supply diversions.

Fish Restoration Plan – The Restoration Program has created a comprehensive plan that addresses key aspects of restoring salmon to the San Joaquin River including reintroduction strategies, genetics management and habitat monitoring. In April, a test release of juvenile salmon was conducted and the preliminary data indicates unexpectedly high survival in the study area.

Flood Management – Absent the restoration effort, lands along the San Joaquin experience high groundwater that can impact crops during wet years like this, when flood control releases put water in the river. However, working with landowners and other interested parties, the Restoration Program has created a seepage management plan that includes a comprehensive monitoring network of over 130 wells to help study and address high groundwater impacts to downstream lands related to interim flows. Data being collected will also help in the development of the California Department of Water Resources’ FloodSAFE comprehensive flood management plan for the entire Central Valley.

This is the kind of real progress toward solving the environmental, flood management and water supply problems that the San Joaquin Valley needs.  One of the ironic effects of this bill is that it would shut down water management programs that are designed to improve water supply for farmers in the Friant area.  It’s not a surprise that the Friant Water Authority has opposed this provision. 

These accomplishments are evidence that the Restoration Program is succeeding and diverse interests can work together to improve habitat, water supply management and flood protection. However, real challenges lay ahead.  Achieving the successful restoration of the San Joaquin River will require many things, including working with local water districts and landowners to understand and address concerns and find solutions that support the continued water management and agricultural practices in the region while also enabling the restoration of a living river for all to enjoy.  Concerns regarding the successful implementation of the restoration program are shared by all who are working to make this effort succeed, and it has been through working together that the program has achieved so much in the last five years.  As such, what is needed is continued cooperation and constructive dialog between all parties to develop real solutions around which we can unite in a request to state and federal elected representatives for their support, not legislation like H.R.1837 that is intended to increase conflict and return this effort to court.   It is in the interest of all stakeholders not to let efforts like H.R.1837 distract us from the important work that is underway nor undermine the growing cooperation between interested parties that will surely lead to the best possible outcome.