Representative Devin Nunes Versus the 'Stupid' Delta Smelt

We'll grant Rep. Nunes this much: delta smelt sure are little. | Photo: USFWS

One of the most environmentally destructive pieces of legislation in California history passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. H.R. 3964, the "Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act," would take water from endangered fish and give it to San Joaquin Valley irrigators at bargain prices.

The measure, which passed the House 229-191, would also end efforts to restore salmon to the San Joaquin River and force federal agencies to ignore science in managing the state's remaining salmon runs.

Fortunately, there's almost no chance the measure will pass the Senate. Both California senators are steadfastly opposed to the bill, with Senator Dianne Feinstein calling it "irresponsible" and "profoundly dangerous." And as it turns out, both those adjectives could be applied to statements made during Wednesday's vote by a Central Valley Representative in the House, Republican Devin Nunes.

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The bill would likely consign a number of fish to extinction in the next five years, including the federally Threatened delta smelt. It would do so by taking 800,000 acre-feet that's left in the Sacramento River each year to maintain flows for the smelt and other wildlife, and shunting all of it into the Central Valley Project (CVP) by 2018 unless the Obama administration delivers that much water to the CVP from other sources.

Unless the White House has some way it hasn't been telling us about to make it rain in California, the bill would essentially give that 800,000 acre-feet per year to Central Valley farms supplied by the CVP.

That 800,000 acre-feet may sound like a lot of water. And it is. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land a foot deep, or just over 325,851 gallons. That's enough water to meet a typical urban Californian's personal consumption for three years and ten months. But compared to the five million acre-feet that the CVP's agricultural customers get in a typical year, 800,000 acre-feet doesn't seem so big. Here's an oversimplified visual representation of the two amounts:

Central Valley Project ag deliveries compared to environmental flows | Image: KCET

That's not including the water deliveries to the Central Valley's growing cities, which wouldn't get any of the water taken from the fish.

It's a water grab, plain and simple, and it's not the first such: Senate Democrats beat back a very similar attempt by House Republicans a couple of years ago. Since any reasonable observer would guess that this bill will suffer the same fate, it's almost certain that H.R. 3964 is intended more as a way to perform political grandstanding than an attempt to get anything done. Sponsor David Valadao, a freshman Republican from the smallish Central Valley city of Hanford, is far from having a lock on re-election. The bill may well have been intended as a way of solidifying support among his conservative base.

The bill's main cosponsors, Central Valley Republicans Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy enjoy much more secure incumbencies. And Nunes, at least, has been grandstanding. Among other things, he stood on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday and lambasted Democrats for not valuing San Joaquin agribusiness interests above the continued existence of the delta smelt, which he referred to, on the record, as a "stupid little fish."

Nunes is not what you would call universally respected among California water policy wonks. Take for example this 2012 post on the highly regarded water blog On The Public Record, which bears the illustrative title "Oh Devin Nunes, you crazy loon." The post concerned H.R. 3964's 2012 predecessor, H.R. 1873, and its author, an incognito water professional who posts as "On The Public Record," began:

Devin Nunes gave a whole bunch of interviews about his water bill, which means he talked a whole lot of crazytalk and easily refuted lies. But whatever. That's what he does, and we've spent enough time on many of them.

That's what we can print here, anyway. The criticism of Nunes gets more pointed and, frankly, NSFW as the post goes on.

What drives this disdain for Nunes' positions among the water wonks? Things like the speech he gave on the House floor in support of H.R. 3964:

In the first five minutes of the speech here, Nunes:

  • Calls San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles "deserts"
  • Says that there'd be no drought problem in the San Joaquin Valley if it wasn't for 40 years of the feds "pre-empting state law" with measures like the Endangered Species Act and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA)
  • Claims that the real threat to the delta smelt is urban sewage discharge from Bay Area cities, and
  • Insinuates that those cities are hypocritical because they dammed Hetch Hetchy for a water supply a century ago

Let's quickly address each of those points.

1) Coastal cities do consume more water than their territories can provide, but they're not deserts.

2) Federal environmental law often preempts state laws, and that's been a rallying cry for antienvironmental activists for decades. One can reasonably argue the merits of laws like the CVPIA, passed in 1992 to address the worst of the environmental damage the massive federally funded water project created, but Nunes' allegation here is best read as a routine Wise Use Movement talking point.

3) Sewage discharge into the Bay-Delta ecosystem is a significant environmental problem, and a threat to species like the delta smelt. But most Bay Area cities' discharges are well downstream from the Delta. Tidal mixing does bring some effluent "upstream", but the vast majority of the discharges that would affect the smelt come from the very Central Valley cities that Nunes would cast as the beleaguered victims of the coastal water elites. And diverting environmental flows to Fresno County would only make Delta water that much filthier.

4) Hetch Hetchy certainly stands as one of California's original environmental sins, and its O'Shaughnessy Dam paved the way for bigger dams like Shasta, Friant, Folsom, and Oroville -- all of which take water from the mountains to water San Joaquin Valley cotton. Having been a San Francisco enviro myself, I can attest that the people in San Francisco who most value the delta smelt are also the most likely to support tearing down O'Shaughnessy Dam. And if that happened and all the water in Hetch Hetchy was allowed to flow to the Delta for the fish, it would provide a little more than 260,000 acre-feet per year.

That's less than a third of the 800,000 acre-feet Nunes and his colleagues want to take out each year.

It was in the discussion of Hetch Hetchy that Nunes made his derogatory reference to the smelt:

I don't see any of them up here saying that they're going to tear down this system, dump this water into the Bay to protect their stupid little fish, their little delta smelt that they care about.

Nunes referring to a perfectly innocent wildlife species as a "stupid little fish" isn't a surprise to anyone who's followed his rhetorical career. But I'm still disappointed.

You don't have to be a little fish with no obvious economic value to be dismissed by Nunes and his allies. In the run up to this week's vote on H.R. 3964 Democrats offered a number of amendments to the bill, which would have done things like making sure the water transfers didn't reduce water supplies to San Joaquin Valley cities, or even worsen irrigation water quality for Delta farms. In 2009, Nunes and his cohort brought Fox News host Sean Hannity to an event in which the assembled guests jeered the plight of unemployed salmon fishermen live on the air.

Apparently, if you're a homeowner in Nunes' 22nd Congressional District or a farmer north of Mendota, or someone whose industry will die if the salmon are gone, your welfare will be disregarded if your need for water conflicts with big San Joaquin growers, precisely as if you were a "stupid little fish."

In the last few years the House of Representatives has failed to be a source of rhetorical gravitas or decorum. But Nunes' insult to a wildlife species that has every bit as much a right to exist as do the corporate-owned farms that constitute his base? That's low even by today's standards.

Here's the thing. That Central Valley Project that Valadao, Nunes, and their cohort want filled with the Sacramento River's environmental flows didn't just show up one day. The Federal government built it, paid for by the taxpayers, as a way to make sure both small farms and the people that work on them had adequate clean water. As of 2006, the cost of Central Valley Project construction -- not including maintenance and operations, just construction -- had surpassed $3.4 billion.

That's $3.4 billion dollars in tax handouts taken over 80 years from the pockets of people like salmon fishers, environmentalists, farmers outside the San Joaquin Valley, and for that matter Americans who don't always find it palatable to provide massive federal subsidies to a regional industrial sector. Especially one that took a project intended to benefit small farms, 160 acres and under, and yoked it to a massive agricultural industry of giant corporate plantations.

And some of us who continue to foot the bill for the massive federal investment that waters giant farms in Nunes' district don't want our money to pay for the delta smelt's extinction.

It would be nice if Nunes could show the smelt, and us his district's benefactors, a little bit more respect. Instead, he's working to rile up resentment of a vulnerable fish that just happens to be in his way. If we're going to weather this drought with the least possible damage to both the environment and our society, we're going to have to drop the inflammatory rhetoric and work together.

Taken in that light, Nunes' remarks are indeed both dangerous and irresponsible.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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