Farmers and their allies are about to face a real test: who’s playing to win and who’s playing not to lose.
Years of playing defense – in courts of law and courts of public opinion – has left some Valley farm-centric groups atrophied, nervous about the stakes of transitioning to a full-throated offense to win back their rightful water allocations.
Let’s start with the final development of 2016: the approval and signage of the WIIN Act (also known as the Water Resources Development Act). The bill, authored and guided by Sen. Barbara Boxer hit a slight speed bump when California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, and Bakersfield native House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy struck a years-in-the-making compromise to relax pumping restrictions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Boxer screamed bloody murder the entire week heading into the vote. She staged an ill-fated filibuster arguing against her own bill. And the WIIN Act effectively served as Boxer’s final vote in her career representing the Golden State in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.
The moment was rich with irony: Boxer forced to vote against her own bill, which delivered a victory for her opponents.
Yet, the bill didn’t receive the universal acclaim one might expect. For water warriors who have spent decades in the struggle, the Feinstein-McCarthy win was a considerable pivot away from decades of stricter Federal regulations on water flow for the Central Valley and Southern California.
But it was a pivot, nonetheless, not V-E Day.
Amid a considerably strong storm soaking the Valley with rain, Capitol Hill is abuzz with a new push driving at a permanent solution to water supply problems in the agriculture hub of the globe.
Moments after being sworn into his third term, Rep. David Valadao introduced H.R. 23, known as the GROW Act. The goal: extend the relaxed restrictions on pumping the Delta and cut through regulatory logjam on storage projects.
Missed in the shuffle of end-of-year celebrating over the deal struck by McCarthy and Feinstein was this: the WIIN Act serves as a five-year band aid for relaxed water pumping.
In delivering a permanent fix, Valadao, along with the Valley’s original water carrier – Rep. Devin Nunes – have the perfect ally: the 45th President.
Nunes, a highly-placed and influential member of the Trump Transition team, is the perfect conduit between the Hill and 1600 Penn to assist maneuvering the GROW Act for enactment.
The real problems, however, could arise from fickle stakeholders unwilling to get knee-deep in the battle.
Last spring, grower groups were increasingly resistant to supporting a proposal to transfer HSR funds to pay for the construction of Temperance Flat Dam, a project that faces steep funding challenges even with the Prop 1 water bond approved in 2014.
Some groups spouted head-scratching talking points claiming that the rail-to-water proposal would irrevocably change the water rights of rights holders. How they would change, predictably, was left unsaid.
Disastrous signs are emerging that grower groups and water districts are shying away from seizing the initiative. While most raincoat and boot-clad Valley farmers grinned cheek to cheek over the soaking over the past few weeks, Nunes decided now was as good a time as any to call out their representatives.
“Representatives of water agencies and agriculture groups were in Washington this week, but they seemed to think the recent rains were cause for a victory dance,” Nunes wrote on Friday. Nunes’ message was succinct: it’s felony stupid to bank on historic rain storms in a La Niña year.
Ultimately, two questions loom for the next year: will water districts and farm organizations figure out that offense is the best defense in this new era? And how long will it take?
Those will help determine whether Valadao’s GROW Act gets the backing it needs.
More importantly, it will determine if tractor-seat pundits get the water they claim to be desperate for.