Are we going to decide to kill fish tonight?
It was a question Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell brought to the Senate floor last Friday as she implored colleagues to vote no on a controversial water bill that would increase water flow to San Joaquin farmers and away from fish habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
And if they start messing with water flows in northern California, what’s to stop them from doing it in Washington?
The delta has long been the nexus of controversy pitting agribusiness against environmentalists, but in the final count over who can lay claim to these 720,000 acres of islands and canals, farmers versus fish, the farmers won.
In spite of Sen. Cantwell’s best efforts, the 700-page Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act passed the Senate 78-21 because, frankly, California needs water. Parched cities and farmland are now in year six of a drought.
But the bill had a major flaw, one that Cantwell deemed “the midnight rider.” The rider eliminates limits on environmental pumping on the Sacramento Delta, and these delta flows are vital for native fish. Chinook salmon and six species of fish migrate up the Sacramento River to spawn and are already listed as endangered.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican dubbed by the San Jose Mercury News as President-elect Donald Trump’s “go-to guy in California,” stuck in this half-billion dollar, backroom rider to benefit large-scale corporate agriculture.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, called previous mandates on pumping “hyper conservative” and agrees with the bill’s author Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., that storm water gets “lost to the sea,” anyway.
But Cantwell, the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says the bill overrides the Endangered Species Act and weakens protections for salmon and other fish populations, and could lead to extinctions.
She called McCarthy’s rider a ”sweetheart deal to the builders of dams.” She isn’t wrong. The bill authorizes dam building in 17 states and removes congressional oversight. It grants the new secretary of the Interior —Trump has offered the job to Rep. Ryan Zinke (R- Mont.) — authority to enter into agreements to design, study, construct or expand any dam or federal storage facility he wants.
Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, will also play a role in determining when delta pumps can operate and how water is managed. With an emboldened climate-change-denying Trump administration, it’s easy to see why Cantwell is worried.
The good news is that not all riders on this bill were bad. The bill also authorizes funding for important water infrastructure around the country and includes $170 million in much-needed emergency aid for Flint, Michigan, where corroded water pipes are contaminated with lead.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray even stuck in a ticket home for Kennewick Man. The 9,000-year- old skeleton found on federal land along the Columbia River in 1996 has been at the center of a fierce custody battle. Several DNA tests link him to Columbia Basin tribes, and the water legislation will ensure he gets a proper burial.
The bill awaits President Obama’s signature. As Cantwell told her colleagues, it won’t be the last piece of combative legislation when it comes to water. She called for future collaborative stewardship that balances fish, water, river rights and regional concerns.
She also issued a “hell, no” warning to Golden Staters who might try more aggressive legislation in the future. “We are not going to let you attack Northwest salmon for California water; it’s not going to happen.”
Thirsty Californians who threaten an already declining salmon and fish population have a formidable foe in Cantwell.