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WASHINGTON — The lead author in the House of Representatives of a big and controversial California water bill that passed last year is back for more.

With a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress, Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said Tuesday that he was hoping to build on last year’s legislation that was loved by farmers and loathed by environmentalists. 

The bill scales back an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, speeds completion of California dam feasibility studies and locks in certain water deliveries to Sacramento Valley irrigation districts, among other things. Parts of the bill would not have been accepted by the Obama administration, but the Trump team is different.

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Washington, D.C. — San Joaquin Valley officials picture a world in which:

State Route 99 grows wider in Merced, Madera and Tulare counties. Stronger roads support the region’s heavy dairy tankers. New reservoirs get built. And, not least, some bipartisan cooperation blossoms on Capitol Hill.

Farfetched? Maybe. But this week, elected representatives and staffers from eight Valley counties are making their collective case to an often-fitful Congress. They’re following the adage, sometimes applicable in lobbying as in life, that fortune favors the bold.

“We’re bringing attention to the needs of the Valley, and making sure that all of our legislators know where we stand,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien said Wednesday, adding that “we also get different audiences than we normally get with just the congressmen.”

O’Brien, for instance, was speaking in the Cannon House Office Building, where three House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staffers were briefing the visitors. In the afternoon, the Valley officials talked about clean air rules at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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California’s two Democratic senators remain somewhat out of sync over proposed water legislation, underscoring its ambiguous future on the eve of a big hearing.

Four months after Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s introduction of her latest California water package, Sen. Barbara Boxer is still evaluating the 185-page bill. Her wait-and-see attitude hints at complex undercurrents, as she supports some parts of Feinstein’s bill while seeking more feedback about other parts. 

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Washington -- The now-distant December of 1988 was a big month for California water lawsuits that would last a generation and eventually land in Congress’ lap, where their ripples linger to this day.

Each of the two major lawsuits, introduced within weeks of each other 27 years ago, offers enduring lessons – in law, in politics and in the long, long time it takes to get things done in Washington.

“Nothing is easy around here,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Jan. 13. “Not even a motherhood resolution is easy.”

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WASHINGTON — Publicly and privately, California lawmakers are pushing to get a big water bill off its current glacial pace.

 

But history cautions that California legislation this ambitious always takes time, and plenty of it.

 

Eight years passed between the introduction of California desert protection legislation and its final approval in 1994. More than a decade was needed to complete a deal protecting the redwood trees of Northern California’s Headwaters Forest Reserve. A San Joaquin River restoration bill took three years.

 

The common denominator to all of these is Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, again going big with a $1.3 billion California water package. The compelling question is whether negotiators can finally reach an elusive agreement. “Every year, we’ve seen the same movie play out over and over again,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said Monday. “And every year, it ends in the same way.”

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 — A new California water bill slated to hit the House floor this week would boost irrigation deliveries to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, nudge along planning for new dams and capture more storm runoff for human use.

It would not authorize dam construction, repeal an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plan or last longer than the state’s current drought.

And whether it survives or dies will almost certainly be up to the Senate, where California’s two Democrats are feeling the heat from every corner.

“I have carefully studied the Republican water bill and I am dismayed that this measure could reignite the water wars by overriding critical state and federal protections for California,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said late Wednesday.

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Last week, a prominent environmental group released its annual report identifying the top ten “endangered” streams and rivers nationwide—waterways that are at a crossroads politically, where key upcoming decisions will have major impacts for better or worse. California’s San Joaquin River, the second longest river in the state, is #1 on the list due to the historical and ongoing impacts of state water infrastructure, and major proposals to expand this infrastructure in the future. Flowing 330 miles, the River begins in the Sierra Nevada mountains and meanders through the San Joaquin Valley toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is part of the largest estuary on the west coast. Tributaries to the San Joaquin include the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Calaveras, and Mokelumne Rivers. The 10,000 square mile San Joaquin Valley receives little rainfall on average, but historical river flows have been maintained by seasonal snow melt from the Sierras. This area is the most agriculturally productive region in the country; the San Joaquin Valley supports upwards of $25 billion in food crops annually. The San Joaquin River provides important transportation corridors for agricultural products and since the early 1900s, the river has been routinely dredged to allow large cargo ships to navigate. 

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It is well documented that major changes to the Delta and the San Joaquin River have resulted from human activities, especially water diversions and other infrastructure that captures and transports water away from the Delta to drier parts of the state. Some studies estimate less than five percent of the native biodiversity of the Delta remains, with the tidal marsh habitats being most degraded. Chinook salmon and other native fish struggle to maintain healthy population levels as aquatic habitat areas along the San Joaquin (and many other waterways in and near the Delta) have been degraded and blocked by in-stream water diversions and monumental structures like dams.

 Water diversions and stream barriers reduce flows and physically alter the surrounding habitat areas. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, many of these alterations and changes will be permanent: [t]he characteristics of the earlier Delta that are likely gone forever include (1) physical habitat appropriate for species that tend to rely on shallow water and structure for refuge and feeding; (2) food aggregation that long, complex sloughs and channels provide through increased production and retention, and (3) cooling functions that adjacent wetlands provide for small water bodies, such as sloughs, which provide refuge for fishes during summer heat spells.

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On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments that could affect farmers near the San Joaquin River. Michael Doyle has the story, and what the broader implications are for farmers in the Central Valley. The article was originally published Wednesday on the McClatchy Newspapers website.

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