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Water Bill Tarnishes Senator Feinstein's Environmental Legacy

Dianne Feinstein Getty Images
Senator Dianne Feinstein at a Senate hearing in 2015 | Photo: Getty Images

Commentary: People have mined a lot of different things from the California desert over the decades. In the 19th century there was gold, and copper, and borax. LADWP mined water from the desert starting in the 20th Century, and others want to follow suit. In the last decade, many have tried to mine the desert’s sun and wind.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has a new wrinkle on the practice: she seems to have tried to mine the desert for environmentalist street cred. Over the past few years, Senator Feinstein has been lauded by the environmental community for her work to preserve large swaths of the Mojave Desert, an effort that culminated in the presidential designation this year of three new desert National Monuments. Environmentalists are rightly grateful for those monuments.

But though the Senator started 2016 with credit for an environmental triumph, she’s ending it by pushing an environmentally disastrous bill through Congress that may well mean the extinction of several endangered species, and the further erosion of endangered Native cultures. And it’s time for those who lauded her work in the desert to call her out.

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Observers who pay attention to environmental issues in more than one region of California have long known that Senator Feinstein’s environmental record is decidedly mixed. While the League of Conservation Voters gives Feinstein relatively high marks for her environmental record — an 89 percent lifetime record, with many individual 100 percent annual ratings over the years — the Senator tends to fall short when it comes to enacting limits on unsustainable water use by California agriculture.

So it’s not really much of a surprise that when Congress passed a bill December 9 approving a number of water infrastructure projects across the country, that bill included a rider, placed there by Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, that will maximize water diversions from the Bay and Delta to San Joaquin Valley farmers at the expense of wildlife.

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The winter-run Chinook salmon could be a casualty of Senator Feinstein's water bill. | Image: NOAA Fisheries

Among other things, the rider would force scientists at federal agencies to err on the side of incaution when determining how much water can be diverted from the Delta. The rider orders agencies to stay just within the letter of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, but to put their thumbs on the scale in favor of water exports to agribusiness. The new rule, signed into law Friday, December 16 by President Obama, drastically limits scientists’ ability to give critically endangered fish like the Delta smelt, the threadfin smelt, and the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon a little extra water to increase chances of their survival.

The rider also includes more than $500 million in funding to increase water storage in federal water projects in California. It’s likely that this funding will facilitate a controversial proposal to raise the height of the federally operated Shasta Dam, and allows the Secretary of the Interior to approve other water storage projects in California  without the approval of Congress. The next Secretary of the Interior is likely to be appointed by President-Elect Donald Trump, who declared before the election that there is no drought in California. Such an erosion of citizen oversight by way of our democratically elected representatives should give any environmentally minded Californian pause.

Raising the Shasta Dam, which the water sector backs for the increased storage possibilities in a potentially larger Lake Shasta, would likely be the kiss of death for endangered winter-run Chinook, already teetering on extinction’s edge ever since the dam blocked access to more than 90 percent of their historic spawning habitat.

As we’ve pointed out here in recent weeks, the fate of the winter-run is intricately bound up in the fate of the Winnemem Wintu people, who’ve been campaigning against all odds to save the fish. Building the Shasta Dam drowned most of the Winnemem Wintu’s historic homeland; raising the dam would inundate 20 remaining sites sacred to the tribe, along with the site of the 1854 Kabyay Creek Massacre, in which white settlers killed 42 Winnemem Wintu men, women, and children.

Lake Shasta with Mount Shasta in distance
In the background, Mount Shasta. In the foreground, the traditional lands of the Winnemem Wintu — buried under hundreds of feet of water. | Photo: Ray Krebs, some rights reserved

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk’s assessment of the rider was blunt. On Facebook, she pointedly compared Feinstein’s betrayal of the salmon with the ongoing campaign to protect the Missouri River taking place at the Standing Rock reservation:

Chief Sisk said in a later post that the rider was “a disaster for WATER, Chinook and [the] Winnemem Wintu Tribe.”

The rider might also speed construction of the controversial Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River, which — in addition to destroying salmon habitat and reducing the state’s supply of hydroelectric power, by drowning two existing power plants — runs the risk of damaging as many as 42 sites important to the Mono, Yokuts and other peoples. Putting the decision whether to build Temperance Flat entirely in the hands of the next Interior Secretary could prove an environmental and human rights disaster.  

But the rider passed along with the larger water bill, in part due to an impassioned plea on the floor of the Senate in which Senator Feinstein cited the “tens of thousands” of California farmers going bankrupt due to water shortages, a claim that turned out to be approximately as factually accurate as a wee-hours tweet from President-Elect Trump. (Farm employment has actually gone up during the drought, Sacramento Bee reporters Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler pointed out on Tuesday.)

Senator Feinstein, in her statement announcing the success of the rider, makes much of the restoration and habitat enhancement projects also included in the bill, which may do something to ameliorate the damage the rider will create. But even her staunchest allies in the environmental movement aren’t buying it. Mainstream groups like Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council come out strongly against the rider, and Feinstein’s Californian counterpart in the Senate, Barbara Boxer, filibustered against the rider what will likely be her last act before retiring from the Senate.

The rider was folded, somewhat cynically, into a bill that also includes funding for crucial and overdue infrastructure projects such as repairing the water system in Flint, Michigan, a community that’s made headlines for more than a year due to lead contamination in its tap water. Environmentalists have been quick to call out that maneuver as gamesmanship. Scott Slesinger, legislative director at NRDC, put it this way:

John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, echoed Slesinger’s dismay over politics trumping science in the Delta:

With this rider's passage, it’s increasingly likely that Dianne Feinstein won’t be remembered as much for the desert lands she helped save as for the devastating damage she did to the West Coast’s largest estuary, the endangered fish that rely on that estuary, the salmon fishermen that rely on them, and the vital Native culture of the Winnemem Wintu and other peoples.

It has been suggested quite a number of times over the years that Senator Feinstein’s environmental commitment goes out the window when it comes to the financial welfare of her friends, with the Beverly Hills-based farmers Stewart and Lynda Resnick being a prime example.

But few friends are worth trashing your carefully cultivated environmental street cred, Senator Feinstein. Far fewer are worth trashing the environment itself. Many of your supporters in the California desert, who’ve been grateful for the work you’ve done to protect their home, care just as deeply about the Delta smelt and the winter-run Chinook as they do about the desert tortoise. Because they know that saving the planet only when it doesn't conflict with your personal goals isn’t really saving the planet at all.

Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KCETLink. Banner: Shasta Dam. Photo: Dan Brekke, some rights reserved.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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