Proposed state bill would threaten key water supply negotiations and hurt farmers

By John Harris

JULY 11, 2019 11:02 AM, UPDATED JULY 11, 2019 11:02 AM

In the California water world, nothing has the potential to cause more damage than a “comprehensive” bill on a fast track.

Such is the case with Senate Bill 1 (Atkins, Portantino, Sher), the “California Environmental, Public Health, and Workers Defense Act of 2019.”

This is a dangerous reaction — some might say overreaction — to perceived rollbacks by the Trump administration of federal standards for endangered species, air quality and worker safety.

If the federal government weakens certain standards, SB 1 would have state agencies immediately adopt the “baseline” standards that were in place on Jan. 19, 2017 (the day before Trump took office).

SB 1 has passed the Senate and one of three Assembly committees. It continues to be heard in other committees in the Assembly.

The endangered species portion of this bill, in particular, could devastate ongoing federal-state negotiations over Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta operations using new scientific studies rather than decades-old data.

Proponents have said SB 1 will keep Trump from delivering more water to farms, thereby harming endangered fish.

That sentiment is exactly what makes SB 1 so dangerous. It relies on the worn-out trope that California’s water issues boil down to “farms versus fish.”

The assumption is the only way to save our endangered native fish is to increase delta flows and cut water to farmers.

Punishing water users by cutting their water deliveries hasn’t worked for farms or fish. Delta flows have been increased and endangered fish populations have continued to plummet.

Meanwhile, a wide array of fish-saving efforts are being considered or are underway. Those include improving in-delta habitat, fish salvage, increased fishing limits on non-native predatory fish, temperature and timing controls, increasing flood plains both on and off farms, etc.

And modern scientific studies are at the heart of federal biological assessments that will be used in a new state-federal agreement for delta operations. An agreement that had not been renewed since 1986 and the Obama Administration sought to renegotiate starting in 2016.

The biological assessments were only recently released and the coordinated operating agreement is still being negotiated. SB 1 would bring that collaboration to a screeching halt.

Any new science offering guidance to better aid endangered fish would be tossed out in favor of the tried-and-failed method of simply turning up delta flows. SB 1 would actually mandate a continued decline of endangered species.

The bill would also create a permitting nightmare.

SB 1 states that if the feds downgrade a species, the California Fish and Game Commission “shall” list it under California’s Endangered Species Act (CESA). Further, SB 1 states that if the administration changes the federal Endangered Species Act, or any of its regulations affecting the protected status of a species, the commission must list every federally listed species not already covered under the CESA.

This could result in mass species listings without public input or best science.

Such an event would nullify existing incidental-take permits and cause a massive backlog of applications for new state permits, opening up applicants to state civil and criminal citations, even though they are complying with federal ESA rules.

Finally, SB 1 isn’t needed.

California’s regulatory agencies already have the authority to adopt more stringent standards than the feds. And the majority of California’s environmental and labor regulations do go beyond federal requirements.

SB 1 won’t cocoon California from Trump. But it could wreak havoc on the emerging progress toward more scientifically sound, sustainable operations of the most important water battleground in California.

John Harris is chairman of Harris Farms, founded in 1937 on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley near Five Points. He is also an active member of the Central Valley Business Federation (BizFed). He can be reached at [email protected]

The original publishing of this story can be found here.

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