Central California Republicans — and farmers across the state — won a small victory last night in a House committee in a battle that has seen scores of communities devastated by environmental regulatory overreach.
The Delta smelt is a tiny fish that lives is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley River Delta. In response to the fish’s threatened status, influenced by its sensitivity to environmental conditions and the large-scale pumping operations necessary to send water south, a 2007 court order citing the Endangered Species Act severely cut back water deliveries through the agricultural Central Valley.
Legislation, lawsuits and regulation whipped up a perfect storm to stop much of the water from reaching millions of Californians.
“So the people that had the water ended up losing the water thanks to government and government regulations,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told me Thursday, taking a break in his office after the mark-up of his bill, the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act.
“And so what we’re doing, this bill, is we’re basically fixing that problem,” he said, by going back to the 1994 bipartisan Bay-Delta Accord. “We’re going back and we’re saying, let’s give the people back their state water rights.”
Nunes, a 38-year-old, five-term congressman, has long been pegged as an up-and-comer in the Republican Party. He already holds two choice committee seats, on Ways and Means and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. His office is tucked next to Speaker John Boehner’s on the first floor of the Longworth House office building.
The water crisis back home in his district has been a key priority for Nunes, who saw the region’s problems only multiply under Nancy Pelosi’s House.
“They actually passed a couple pieces of legislation that made it much worse,” he said. “They took a quarter million acre feet away there, which devastated a lot of my district.”
That’s why, he said, the Valley’s crisis is called “the manmade drought or the Congress-created drought.”
“Because it was laws passed over time that were followed by lawsuits that took the water away,” Nunes said.
The result of this regulation and decreased water supplies has been crippling in a region where agriculture accounts for $26 billion in total sales and 38 percent of the area’s jobs. More than half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts hail from California.
“We have chronic high unemployment because there’s been job destruction going on there for so long,” Nunes said.
Counties’ reported jobless rates in the high teens don’t even take into account those who have stopped looking for work, seasonal workers or illegal immigrants.
“I’d like to say it’s probably well above 20 [percent], the real unemployment number,” Nunes said.
The congressman said it’s been regulatory action upon regulatory action that has decimated jobs in the valley spanning the gap between the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Ranges.
“The timber industry was the first industry they went after,” he said. “So all the mountains that they used for timber, mining, that sort of thing, basically there’s hardly any of that left. It’s 90 percent gone.”
Then came “the slow taking of water,” he added, along with stringent environmental regulations that made it “almost impossible” for farmers to adapt. The trucking industry has also taken a serious hit.
“So it’s put a lot of folks out of business,” Nunes said. “The government is creating job destruction at such a rate that you can never get out of the hole. So that’s why basically we have a 20 percent unemployment rate.”
Last year, the Valley saw rainfall 200 percent above average, a “one-in-30-year” event. “The government couldn’t take the water away fast enough and the farmers were able to capture it and hold on to it,” the congressman said. Still, some farmers only received 80 percent of their contracted water supplies.
But he notes that the drought-prone area is going to see another bad rainfall year in 2012, and even a normal rainfall year is enough to “devastate entire communities and idle hundreds of acres of land” with scant water deliveries.
Different estimates have estimated the bill and restoration of water deliveries could restore anywhere from 10,000 to 80,000 jobs. “My guess is it’s probably somewhere in the middle of those,” Nunes said.
The bill is co-sponsored by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who also has a Valley district in the Bakersfield area, and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), whose Valley district is to the north of Nunes’.
“Current water policy that puts the interests of a tiny fish above hardworking Central Valley families has created a man-made drought in California, diverting hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water that could have been used to support jobs and crops throughout the Central Valley,” McCarthy said in a statement last night praising the bill’s advancement. “The increased unemployment and fallow land seen in our communities because of environmental overregulation still stings, and without action, will continue.”
The cooperation from California’s Senate delegation has been less.
“Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein’s refused to help, but she’s going to be in a spot where, once the House acts, there’s going to be massive devastation and people will be holding her responsible,” Nunes said.
Some Republican senators have tried to help by introducing amendments.
But the House Democrats from the Valley have not been allies in the water restoration effort.
“That’s why you see one retiring and one moving to a different district,” Nunes said of Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa.
While the legislation will help to turn the tide of the “slow degradation of private property rights,” the congressman knows that recovery from years of regulation won’t be easy.
“This just basically stops the bleeding,” Nunes said, “so that you can have certainties in water deliveries so that people can plan how they’re going to grow their businesses.”