House Natural Resources Committee hearing Dog and Pony Show

    By Lloyd G. Carter

   All you need to know about Wednesday's (March 19)  drought field hearing in Fresno of the House Committee on Natural Resources is that salmon were never mentioned and the GOP pols knew how to throw red meat to the farmers in the packed city hall chambers. It speaks volumes that there were seven Republicans and only one Democrat (Rep. Jim Costa) at the hearing chaired by Rep. Richard N. "Doc" Hastings, who is retiring after his term ends.

    Hastings said he invited all 21 Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee to participate in the hearing but only Costa, who had no explanation why no other Democrats showed up, was in attendance. Committee members Jared Huffman and Grace Napolitano, former chair of the house subcommittee on water, were among the no shows.

     Hastings also said he was "very, very disappointed" that State Water Resources Control Board chairwoman Felicia Markus failed to appear despite being invited.  Marcus, who previously worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as western regional  director, also served as EPA director for Region 9 and was appointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger to the Delta Stewarship Council.

   Markus was the target of several jibes by the Republican committee members during the hearing, who said Markus and NRDC lawsuits were responsible for the growers' current situation.

     Chairman Hastings blamed Democrats in the Senate for stalling a bill approved by the House (HR 3964) which would lift Endangered Species Act restrictions in the Delta and kill the court-approved San Joaquin River restoration plan, among other things. Hastings said more surface storage, i.e. dams, were needed in California although he didn't say who was going to pay for dams that could cost several billion dollars each. The House approved the bill by Hanford Congressman David Valadao but Senate Leader Harry Reid said the bill isn't going anywhere in the Senate and President Obama said he would veto the bill if it cleared the Senate.

     Sad Sack Rep. Costa, who barely survived an election year challenge in 2012, told the audience of mostly farmers, "Like you, I am angry. I am angry that in the face of devastation we continue to point fingers and play the blame game, which does not bring us one additional drop of water."  He urged that Democrats and Republicans work together in a bipartisan fashion.  Good luck on that one, Jim.

      However, Costa barely mentioned his own water bills, in conjunction with California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and made sure the audience knew that he had voted for Valadao's bill.

   Rep. Tom McClintock, chair of the Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Water and Power, launched into what he called a "regulatory drought" and thundered to loud applause, "We didn't build dams and canals to dump water in the ocean."  Apparently, McClintock, who represents part of the Delta, is unfamiliar with, or unconcerned about, salinity repulsion in the Delta and the need to send  Delta water down to San Francisco Bay to prevent a catastrophic rush of sea water into the salt-sensitive 500,000 acres of farmland in the Delta.  Indeed, the fate of Delta farming should Valadao's bill become law was never mentioned.  Of course, no witnesses from the Delta region were invited to appear at the hearing.  Surprisingly, Westlands Water District general manager Tom Birmingham did not testify, preferring to glad hand the members of Congress before the hearing started.

   Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, a member of the committee, complained Congress "can't control people, groups who sue over and over," another thinly veiled shot at Water Board chairwoman Markus.

    Rep. Devin Nunes, who is proud of constantly demonizing environmentalists, said the current problem was not attributable to drought or global warming.  The problem, he said, was environmentalists and the "supposedly persecuted fish species."  McClintock, in a recent speech in the Congressional Record said state officials were releasing water "for the amusement" of the Delta Smelt. Nunes, who is not on the Natural Resources Committee but was invited to attend the hearing, warned if nothing further was done this year, 800,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley would be idled.  Nunes said he had been "fighting extremists" in the environmental movement for over 10 years in Congress and warned of a "new Dust Bowl in the Valley." 

     Nunes noted Governor Jerry Brown had been governor 40 years ago and didn't get anything done on water issues then.  Nunes forgets the defeat of the 1982 Peripheral Canal was not because of wild-eyed radical environmentalists, but was due to Tulare Lake land barons J.G. Boswell and the Salyer Bros. siding with enviros and Northern Californians to block the measure.

    Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield asked a DWR official if state water officials make their water allocations based on the concept of "Fish versus People and Food."  This drew a big laugh from the crowd.  The young woman from DWR could have responded, "No, Congressman, it's about people in the western San Joaquin Valley who have inferior water rights versus people in the Salmon Industry and farmers on 500,000 acres in the Delta.  And, by the way, salmon is more nutritional than almonds."  But, of course, she didn't say that.  She just sat mute, like a good soldier. 

    A crowd variously estimated at several hundred held a rally outside the city hall chambers before the hearing, holding professionally-made picket signs that said "Don't Smelt Our Economy" and "No water, no Food."  Speakers fired up the crowd with blasts at Democrats, Gov. Brown, the Bureau of Reclamation, the State Water Board, San Franciscans, and environmentalists.  One witness repeated the rural myth that the Smelt is an imported species in the Delta.  Indeed, there was a sense of entitlement among the crowd that is hard to put in words.  They have a sincere belief the rest of California should give them all the water they want, in order to export our rivers overseas in the form of almonds.

     Several of the witnesses told of despair in their areas over the lack of water.  Larry Starrh, whose family farms 9,000 acres of almonds and pistachios in Kern County said he had to plow up 1,000 acres of almonds.  Gee, I guess it will be tough to make it through on just 8,000 acres.  And didn't all these people planting permanent crops on the West Side of the Valley - almonds and pistachios - know their water supplies were very shaky?  Wasn't that a risk they took as business operators?  If someone plants 10,000 acres of almonds in the Mojave Desert and can't get water, whose fault is it?  Starrh said it would take a "real tragedy" before the state wakes up to the realization that more storage is needed.  (Here's an interesting factoid not mentioned at the hearing.  Starrh and his family received $14.8 million in federal subsidies from 1995 to 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group website.)

   Several of the witnesses and congressmen touted the proposed Temperance Flat Dam on the upper San Joaquin River, an idea which has been around for two decades, and could produce new additional water storage in flood years. The proponents did not mention studies indicating it could not pass a cost-benefit analysis, required by the federal government on any big project.

   Tom Coleman, chairman of the Madera County Farm Bureau, contended growers would pay for most, if not all, of any new dam at Temperance Flat. 

    Chairman Hastings asked officials of the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide him by April 2 a list of specific ideas on how to reduce the anticipated shortfall of 2.1 million acre-feet of Northern California water in the San Joaquin Valley.  There were no witnesses to discuss what happens if the drought goes on.  The real drought none of them like to talk about.

  On hand for the hearing was a film crew from Sean Hannity's talk show on Fox News.  Hannity covered the clash between Westlands Water District and federal water officials a few years ago and managed to never mention salmon, the salmon industry, or Delta farmers.  Expect him to do the same this time.