Feinstein Says Environmental Activists Have ‘Never Been Helpful’ on Water Policy

Published June 5, 2014

California Sen. Diane Feinstein called out environmental activist groups who oppose making additional water resources available to California farmers and rural communities trying to cope with a severe drought. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein, a Democrat, said environmental activist groups have “never been helpful” in producing good water policy.

Drought Policies Hammer Farmers
Drought conditions have afflicted the Golden State for the past three years. After an unusually small amount of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains this past winter, conditions are likely to worsen before they get better. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and state environmental officials are calling for a 20 percent reduction in water usage. Meanwhile, water reservoirs could provide relief to hard-pressed communities, but government water officials are diverting the reservoir water to rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean, in order to protect fish species.  

In April, the federal Bureau of Reclamation drained Folsom and other reservoirs on the American and Stanislaus rivers of more than 70,000 acre-feet of water—enough to meet the annual needs of a city of a half a million people—in an effort to bolster fish populations. Writing in the Wall Street Journal (May 24-25), Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) noted, “Government officials who are entrusted with the careful management of our water squandered it in less than three weeks to nudge baby salmon toward the Pacific Ocean (to which they swim anyway) and to keep the river at just the right temperature for the fish by flushing the colder water stored in the reservoirs.”

California farmers are struggling to survive under the drought conditions. In the U.S. Senate, Feinstein and fellow California Democrat Barbara Boxer crafted a drought relief bill that would give federal and state water officials more flexibility in granting farmers and rural communities access to some of the water that is usually set aside to benefit fish species and other environmental purposes. 

‘Not a Single Constructive View’
Environmental activist groups quickly criticized Feinstein’s bill. Bob Wright, a lawyer for the environmental activist group Friends of the River, accused Feinstein of exploiting the drought to “cater to the wishes of powerful growers in Westlands and Kern County water districts.”

When asked about environmental activist groups opposing he drought relief bill, Feinstein told the Chronicle, “Well, that’s really too bad, isn’t it? I would be very happy to know what they propose…. I have not had a single constructive view from environmentalists of how to provide water when there is no snowpack.”

Environmental activist groups have “never been helpful to me in producing good water policy,” Feinstein added.

Feinstein’s colleagues in the U.S. Senate apparently agreed, unanimously passing the Emergency Drought Relief Act on May 22. The House passed its own drought relief bill, leaving differences to be ironed out in a joint House/Senate committee.

Drought Bill’s Provisions
The bill would cut red tape that lengthens the timeframe for water managers to approve farmers’ water transfer requests, allow federal water managers more flexibility in meeting wildlife refuge water requirements, and give priority access to water reserves to contractors who stored the water before the drought.

The bill would also require water officials to make available as much water as possible to farmers and rural communities that would be consistent with the Endangered Species Act. For example, federal water officials would have to keep water gates on the Sacramento River open when fish are not migrating, which would make more water available for human use.

While providing drought relief, the bill is narrowly tailored to preserve important environmental goals. For example, it directs federal environmental officials to monitor the water around pumping stations for endangered fish, ensuring the pumping activities will not harm the fish. The bill also explicitly directs environmental officials to monitor the effects of the bill to ensure there are no violations of the Endangered Species Act. 

“Water shortages are causing widespread suffering for California family farmers and those who depend on them for jobs and environmental stewardship,” said California Farm Bureau Federation president Paul Wenger in a press statement. “Now that each house has passed drought measures, we need to meld the two in ways that provide the swiftest, most effective relief possible.”

“The House and Senate bills set the stage for long-overdue discussions of how to make the system work better for farms, cities, and the environment—particularly in droughts like we’re experiencing now,” Wenger added.

Activists Depart from Mainstream 
Steven Hayward, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, says it is no surprise that environmental activist groups are attacking reliable environmentalists such as Feinstein and Boxer on the drought relief bill. Hayward said the extremism of so-called mainstream environmental groups is further reflected in their opposing a bill supported by every Democrat in the U.S. Senate.

“California’s greens are utterly intransigent in their goal of shutting down longstanding uses of public water projects,” said Hayward.

“This is all the more reason to privatize state and federal water resources in California and allow market mechanisms to make necessary adjustments,” Hayward added.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., ([email protected]is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.