WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2016 - President Obama signed into law a water projects authorization bill and issued a statement cautioning agency managers to heed endangered species requirements before increasing irrigation water supplies in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley.
Critics of the drought relief, led by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the provisions would divert more water to California farmers than should be permitted by biological opinions that enforce the endangered species protections and protect Pacific salmon fisheries.
Obama’s signing statement sought to address that concern by saying he interprets the legislation to require “continued application and implementation of the Endangered Species Act, consistent with the close and cooperative work of federal agencies with the State of California to assure that state water quality standards are met.
“This reading of the short-term operational provisions carries out the letter and spirit of the law and is essential for continuing the cooperation and commitment to accommodating the full range of complex and important interests in matters related to California water.”
A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who co-authored the provisions along with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the president’s statement was consistent with congressional intent.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, said the new law will provide needed “flexibility in operating the pumps that supply the state and federal water projects.”
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“The biological opinions allowed biologists to utilize their intuition relative to harm to protected species,” he said. “They must now use metrics based on science and real-time data. Such a novel idea to base operations on such important things as our water infrastructure components on verifiable metrics.”
In order to ensure that farmers have adequate water during spring planting, the bill includes a provision that would expand the current water transfer period from the current July-September window to April-November.
Another provision in the bill would require agencies to explain why they were pumping water at levels lower than what is allowed by biological opinions for protecting the fish habitat.
The bill, called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, authorizes three inland navigation reports based on final Army Corps of Engineers reports - the Calcasieu Lock (Louisiana), the Upper Ohio Navigation System (Pennsylvania), and deepening of Brazos Island Harbor in Texas (Brownsville Ship Channel).