Sarah D. Wire and Bettina Boxall
December 9, 2016

Over Sen. Barbara Boxer’s objections, the Senate voted 78 to 21 Friday evening to pass sweeping water infrastructure legislation that changes how much water is pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California.

The bill — co-authored by Boxer — authorizes hundreds of water projects across the country, including new infrastructure to fix lead issues in Flint, Mich., and and millions of dollars for projects connected to the Los Angeles River, Salton Sea and Lake Tahoe.

Earlier in the week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy inserted 90 pages of California water policy that drew Boxer’s opposition, negotiated over the past year by the state’s 14 GOP members, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a handful of House Democrats.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 360-61 (including 36 of 53 California members) on Thursday before representatives left town for the year.

Described as drought relief, the proposal focuses on environmental restrictions that have at times limited water flow from the delta to its dry southern neighbors.

Salmon fishing and conservation groups and members of Congress from Northern California condemned the water proposal as a last-minute attack on the environment and the fishing industry. But San Joaquin Valley growers and urban water agencies urged its passage.

Boxer and environmentalists’ issue is that the measure would allow officials at state and federal water management agencies to exceed the environmental pumping limits set under the Endangered Species Act to capture more water, especially during storms. Those limits have been a pet peeve of water contractors, including the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which complained of water supplies “lost to the sea” during last winter’s heavy rains.

“We got pretty good storms last winter and the… regulators were so risk adverse they said you can’t pump hardly any of it,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents public water districts across the state.

Federal biologists have said certain levels of water flowing through the delta are vital for native fish, which have suffered devastating losses during the prolonged drought, and help maintain the quality of the delta’s freshwater supplies.

Feinstein said Friday that she came on board with the new policy after tracking daily water levels “and seeing where, if it were possible, we could have saved water without impacting fish.”

The bill states more than 30 times that the new policy does not supersede existing environmental laws, and Feinstein disagrees with Boxer’s insistence that it weakens the Endangered Species Act.

Saying the change in policy is akin to attacking the landmark law, Boxer spent the last few days trying to persuade colleagues to kill the entire bill, which includes more than two dozen water projects in California alone.

She spoke passionately on it for about 90 minutes Friday, slamming her fist against the lectern repeatedly.

“It isn’t easy. It breaks my heart,” she said, urging her colleagues to either strip out the language or kill the bill.

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