WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2016 - Farmers in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley could get additional irrigation water in coming years under bipartisan provisions included in a congressional agreement to reauthorize water projects. 

The provisions worked out between Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents the Bakersfield, Calif., area,  would allow for diversion of more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Central Valley Project for up to five years. Water releases have been limited because of endangered species protections for the salmon and Delta smelt. 

Feinstein’s Democratic colleague, Barbara Boxer, expressed outrage at the provisions and pledged to try and block the bill on the Senate floor if they weren’t dropped, but Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he expected the legislation to pass. One Democrat, Gary Peters of Michigan, said he was disappointed that the drought provisions were included but indicated that his primary concern was the drinking water assistance for Flint, Mich., that the bill also contained. 

Boxer, who is retiring, is the ranking Democrat on Environment and Public Works, which has jurisdiction over the water projects bill, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act.

Feinstein said that enacting the provision was preferable to taking the risk that the next Congress would open up the Endangered Species Act with the support of the Trump administration.

“Action is long overdue,” Feinstein said. “California is entering its sixth year of drought. Experts state it will take four or more years to recover. We are seeing water wells in the thousands running dry.”

The bill contains some long-term provisions to aid the salmon and smelt recovery, including $15 million that would be used in part to improve spawning habitat on the Sacramento River, as well as the five-year provisions that Boxer opposes. The latter “will ensure the system is operated using science, not intuition. They will help operate the water system more efficiently, pumping water when fish are not nearby and reducing pumping when they are close,” Feinstein said. 

One of the short-term provisions would end a winter “payback” requirement. Agencies could increase pumping during winter storms so long as they do not violate the environmental requirements and would no longer be required “pay back” the pumped water when storms end. 

The bill includes $43 million for salmon and smelt habitat restoration that the next Congress is unlikely to include, she said. 

Rural electric cooperatives, meanwhile, applauded language included in the bill authorizing states to regulate coal ash. The Senate provisions” inject greatly needed certainty into the regulation of coal ash by giving states clear permitting authority and reducing litigation, while providing for its continued beneficial use,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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Boxer called the drought provisions an “outrageous poison pill” that the Trump administration could use administratively to increase water flows without future congressional action. 

“We have a big disagreement on this,” Boxer said of Feinstein. “We just don’t see it the same way.”

Robert Dewey, vice president of government relations for Defenders of Wildlife, called the provisions an example of “backroom dealmaking gone wrong.”

But several water agencies in the Central Valley endorsed the provisions. “If Congress had failed to act, the state ran the risk of losing the ability to deliver water to areas that have suffered socially and economically as a result of water supply shortages and to replenish reservoirs and groundwater levels that provide critical supplies during the months of low precipitation,” the agencies wrote.

McCarthy had announced the deal earlier Monday, describing the provision as a “little, small agreement” that would provide some short-term relief to the Central Valley. He said it was critical for Congress to act now so water storage could be increased this winter. “The rainy season does not wait for Congress,” he said.