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Saturday, Jan 25 2014 11:06 PM

Don't use 'drought emergency' to divide us

By The Bakersfield Californian

The terrifying consequences of California's "drought emergency" cannot be denied: acres of mature, nut-bearing trees dug up; fertile land unplanted; agriculture jobs gone. Some communities are even struggling to provide drinking water for their residents.

But last week's "press availability" that starred three South Valley Republican congressmen -- Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Devin Nunes of Visalia and David Valadao of Hanford -- as well as House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican, seemed more about politics than about bringing real aid to the emergency.

Using terms such as "idiocy" and "nonsense," they blamed California's management of its water system and environmental protection rules -- rather than three consecutive, record-setting dry years and a host of competing water-user interests -- for causing what they called a "man-made crisis."

Boehner even mocked California by noting, "In my part of the world we would shake our heads at how things work here. It's nonsense that a bureaucracy would favor fish over people."

It may be easy for someone who represents a congressional district that receives an average of 41 inches of rain a year to be dismissive of the water wars that have long plagued bone-dry California -- and that drought has rendered historically grim. But Boehner seems to have forgotten that even in his "part of the world" water wars have long been fought. Consider the years-long dispute among water users and potential water users over fragile Lake Erie.

In much the same way Californians have struggle to implement environmental rules to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Delta, Boehner's Ohio, seven other Midwestern states, two Canadian provinces and Congress have bickered over a compact to protect the southeasternmost Great Lake.

So Boehner should know a thing or two about the "nonsense" of a bureaucracy that protects fish and water quality; he should know that when it comes to water, simple answers are exceedingly hard to come by.

The legislation Boehner and the three Valley Republicans are proposing -- this time as a short-term emergency response -- was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate and strongly opposed by state and federal agencies in 2012. Likely the proposed "emergency" legislation will meet the same end this year.

The proposal calls for temporarily increasing pumping in the Delta to 1994 levels if water is available, ending restoration water flows in the San Joaquin River, and establishing a bipartisan emergency joint Senate-House committee to devise long-term legislative solutions.

Valley farmers are hailing the moves. Coastal salmon fishermen say it will destroy their industry. And Delta farmers and environmentalists contend it is a blatant, short-sighted water grab fueled by political contributions from big growers.

Ending San Joaquin River restoration flows is a moot point, since a court ruling already dictates the flows stop after February unless the state receives additional rain and snow. And increasing Delta exports in a dry year could end up hurting both the Delta and water users to the south. It could suck salty sea water into the Delta and into aqueducts that transport water to Valley and Southland farms and cities.

But the lure of politics seems to be too strong to resist dividing Californians at a time when they should be uniting in a search for real solutions. Some even suggest that Republicans can recapture the Valley's Latino vote if they can blame Democrats for prioritizing fish over farms and jeopardizing farm workers' jobs. John Laird, secretary of the state's Natural Resources Agency, was correct when he responded to last week's press conference by noting, "Now is not the time to be divided -- now is the time to bring people together to find solutions."

The one aspect of the Republicans' proposal that makes sense is the creation of a bipartisan joint congressional committee to find long-term legislative solutions to California's decades-old water wars.

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