Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

As California’s Democrats wrapped up their party’s annual convention Sunday, they left San Diego as they arrived: a party still fraying at the seams after the 2016 election, held together by one strong bond—a unifying dislike of President Donald Trump.

Split between their traditional moderate-to-liberal faction and lefter-leaning progressives, the delegates refused to endorse in key races and snubbed a few of their own incumbents, notably longtime U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Their emotional differences over hot issues such as single-payer health care and rent control were on display. Yet through it all, dissing Trump was a reliable applause line.

“Let us find what unites us at this convention,” said Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, who’s been discussed as a Democratic presidential prospect, on the opening evening. “Republicans and Internet trolls and Vladimir Putin (are) laughing every time we’re fighting with each other and not fighting against the Republicans.”

Billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer used his keynote speech as an opportunity to reinforce his public campaign calling for impeachment. “Does anyone in this room believe that Donald Trump is fit to be president of the United States?” If anyone in the convention hall thought so, it was impossible to hear them over the jeering.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles got some of the biggest cheers of the weekend by building on that theme. Her speech questioned the president’s loyalty and mental health, finishing with a rousing chant of “Impeach 45!”

For a party still smarting from a vicious 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—one that had escalated into a contentious party leadership battle last year—it’s nice to find something that everyone can agree on.

“Obviously we have a variety of different views. That’s what parties are about,” said state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento. “We have differences about how we look at things, but we’ve got to protect our country.”

Still, those differences could be important come June. In a number of toss-up congressional races, a surplus of left-of-center candidates threaten to split the primary vote, allowing two Republicans to progress to the November ballot. Shutting Democrats out of contention in those races could jeopardize party plans to re-take control of the U.S. House.

Though the party had hoped to winnow some of the field this weekend by making endorsements in some of those seats, in the races to replace Southern California GOP Reps. Steve Knight, Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, there was no such luck. Under party bylaws, the delegates were too divided to make an official choice.

Failing at those official channels, party Chair Eric Bauman resorted to old-fashioned guilt from the convention hall stage on Sunday in an attempt to thin the herd.

“We have an overpopulation problem,” he said. And then to some of those surplus candidates: “Isn’t there some other way to express your public service? … The voters in those districts want to elect a Democrat, (and) they’re tired of the right-wing hateful agenda of Donald Trump.”

Indeed, both party organizers and aspiring Democrats candidates aim to bring national news scandals to the local level.

“In 2016, Russians and Republicans were very good at sewing discord within our party, so I think we learned a lesson from that election,” said Andrew Janz, who is running to replace GOP Rep. Devin Nunes in his San Joaquin Valley district.

The lesson: Stick together, and focus on the common political enemy.

Outside the room where Janz’s endorsement by the party was to be voted on, one delegate, social activist Emily Cameron, complained about the candidate’s single-minded focus on his opponent. “If you look at his Twitter, it’s like every tweet is about Devin Nunes,” she said, arguing that the candidate should focus more on the economic interests of the Central Valley and less on the Russia investigation and the ties between Nunes and Trump. “It’s not what people care about!”

But evidently, enough delegates did: Janz won the endorsement.

In a state where only a quarter of adults approve of the president’s job performance, emphasizing Trump above all else isn’t a bad strategy. Katharine Marrs, the party’s state field director for 2018, said opposition to Trump has been a “gateway” cause for bringing political neophytes into the world of left-of-center party politics.

“Sometimes we ask people what their top issue is at the door, and instead of giving us healthcare or the economy, sometimes their top issue is Trump,” she said. But can party unity built around opposition to a single candidate last past a single election?

“What we’ve seen is that it’s sustainable for now,” said Marrs. Finding areas of common agreement is a “slower process.”

And for now, the party base appears to be tacking left.

When the nearly 3,000 delegates voted to endorse the statewide races, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom won the top vote share in the gubernatorial contest. Together with the former state superintendent of public instruction Delaine Eastin, both of whom support a state-funded single-payer health-insurance program, the progressive bloc captured 59 percent of the delegate vote.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is skeptical of the state’s ability to implement or fund a single-payer system, and who has taken positions opposed by many organized labor groups, came in at 9 percent. That followed a tough weekend for the former mayor of Los Angeles, who was repeatedly heckled by party activists.

In the U.S. Senate race, state Senate leader Kevin de León received a majority of delegate votes over Feinstein, whom many delegates considered too hawkish on foreign policy, and too dovish on President Trump.

The fact that de León didn’t clear the 60 percent threshold means that the party didn’t officially offer an endorsement—but the body as a whole clearly had a preference. Between de León and progressive dark-horse candidate Pat Harris, just more than 59 percent of the delegates cast their votes to the left.

“Resistance doesn’t just mean saying no. You have to move on a parallel track with a positive proactive agenda,” said de León, suggesting progressive policies like a higher minimum wage and stronger environmental protections were needed. But he also warned against trying to “cajole” or “negotiate” with President Trump, whom he compared to the scorpion in the fable of the scorpion and the frog—a malevolent force unable to control its own destructive impulses.

Rather than write him off, last year Feinstein expressed hope that Trump could learn to become “a good president,” to the chagrin of many on the California left. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, she has voted in line with the president’s preferred legislation 28 percent of the time, placing her roughly in the middle of all Democratic and independent senators. California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, who also spoke at the convention and has been mentioned as a presidential contender, voted with the president just 15 percent of the time.

De León was careful to specify that he was not comparing his opponent in the Senate race to a frog. But he did say that his unrelenting opposition to the administration made for a meaningful difference between the two of them.

President Trump “holds the most powerful position in the world, and therefore, he’s in a position to go out of his way to hurt California,” he said. “So why not be proactive, be preemptive, and position yourself—as opposed to be reactive? Because the onslaught is going to happen.”

In the end, of course, delegates to the convention may or may not accurately represent all Democratic voters statewide—not to mention independents inclined to vote Democratic. Feinstein knows that well, having been booed at her own party’s convention for declaring her support of the death penalty when she was running for governor in 1990. All the while, her campaign was gleefully filming the moment—turning it into a campaign ad to underscore her independence. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

With a small brown paper bag in her hand, Julie walked out of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Roseville with a new supply of birth control. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have health insurance.

“It’s awesome to have Planned Parenthood,” said Julie, who did not wish to give her last name. “To go to a regular health clinic like this would have cost $100, which would make you think twice about having to go.”

It’s the kind of clinic that President Donald Trump and conservative Republicans in Congress hope to cut off from receiving any federal funds. The federal government already prohibits any federal dollars from paying for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life. But this effort seeks to block federal funds from paying for any other kind of health care by providers who also perform abortions.

If the effort succeeds, the impact would be particularly strong in California—a state where legislators over the years have interpreted federal laws and rules in ways that have allowed more federal dollars to flow to Planned Parenthood clinics. Roughly half of the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives nationwide currently goes, mostly via Medicaid reimbursements, to cover health care and family planning services for Californians, mostly in the lower-income brackets.

Ironically, Planned Parenthood officials say if they were to lose all their federal funding, their California abortion clinics would remain open; those already are funded by private sources and by state reimbursements for poorer patients. Instead, what would be at risk are all the nonsurgical sites that provide other medical and contraception services.

The state’s progressive state policies, put in place 30 years ago under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, created a friendly environment for Planned Parenthood to expand and offer family-planning services to low-income men and women above the federal poverty level. That’s in stark contrast to states such as Texas and Mississippi, which unsuccessfully sought to ban their state Medicaid healthcare programs for the poor from channeling any money to health care providers that perform abortions.

As a result, Planned Parenthood today is one of California’s major health care providers, operating 115 clinics that serve 850,000 mostly low-income patients a year who rely on Medicaid (in California, Medi-Cal) for health care. That’s nearly a third of the 2.5 million patients who visit Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide for basic health-care and family-planning services.

“Planned Parenthood is a major safety-net provider at a time of increased health care demand,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University. “In a state like California, with more Planned Parenthoods, the reliance would be that much greater.”

The Republican-controlled Congress, bolstered by President Trump’s election, is eyeing several strategies to stop the flow of federal funding to Planned Parenthood. That money—roughly $500 million a year nationwide, through Medicaid reimbursements, Title X family planning money and grants—pays for services such as cancer screenings, breast exams, birth control, prenatal care and the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

Although Trump has frequently acknowledged that Planned Parenthood helps millions of women, he also has said he would support congressional efforts to ban funding.

“I would defund it because of the abortion factor,” he said at a February 2016 GOP presidential debate. “I would defund it, because I’m pro-life.”

A draft House GOP bill obtained by Politico would eliminate all federal funding to Planned Parenthood as part of a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. While that provision is likely to clear the House, its fate is uncertain in the Senate, where several moderate Republicans could side with pro-choice Democrats.

If the effort were to prevail, California Planned Parenthood would lose $260 million a year in federal funds—approximately 80 percent of its operating budget. Unless it found a way to replenish that money, the organization warns that it could have to close its 82 California sites that furnish basic health care and family-planning services to mostly low-income patients.

Meanwhile, its remaining 33 surgical abortion sites—which don’t get federal funding—would remain open, said Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of California Planned Parenthood.

“The irony here is that they are going to put in place more barriers for women to gain contraception, and that will lead to more abortions—and by the way, all the abortion sites will stay open,” Kneer said.

The House recently voted to reverse an Obama administration regulation that requires states and local governments to distribute family-planning funds to health centers, even if they perform abortions. President Barack Obama issued the rule in his final days in office after more than a dozen conservative states directed those funds only to community health-care centers.

Such an 11th-hour move by an outgoing president, Republicans argued during the floor debate, was an affront to states’ rights.

“I know that vulnerable women seeking true comprehensive care deserve better than abortion-centric facilities like Planned Parenthood,” said Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.

The resolution is now awaiting a vote in the Senate, where California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is working to defeat it. It would have no effect on California, given that it is not among the states that have tried to limit those Title X dollars. Nonetheless, she noted that Planned Parenthood provides the only Title X family planning services in 13 California counties, and that any effort to strip federal funding would take a toll in other states and leave “huge numbers of women across the country (with) no place to go for essential health services.”

Trump on the campaign trail vowed to defund Planned Parenthood, and then he appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who has supported cutting off taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood. Both men have suggested the federal government could reallocate taxpayer dollars to community health centers. But many experts and health care advocates say those health centers cannot absorb the significant number of patients who now rely on Planned Parenthood.

That concern was echoed in January when the Democratic-controlled California Legislature approved resolutions opposing any congressional efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. They did so after Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards met with Democratic senators at their annual policy retreat in Sacramento.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, proclaimed: “California stands with Planned Parenthood, because Planned Parenthood stands with California.”

But his sentiment was not unanimous. Several Republicans spoke out against the resolutions, with state Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, saying he could not support an organization that provides abortions. 

“I have no war against women,” he said. “But I also do not have a war against babies created in the image of God.”

With a Democrat-controlled state Legislature, California Planned Parenthood is hopeful it could ask lawmakers to backfill any federal shortfall. However, Medicaid funding is already strapped in the state, where a record one in three Californians are receiving Medi-Cal benefits. Given the potential for other federal cuts in health funding, it’s unclear whether the state would be able to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood is drafting contingency plans.

“We are looking at scenario planning. These are all very difficult decisions,” Kneer said. “Closing any location is the last thing we want to do.”

One option is to more aggressively raise funds, but Kneer said private donations can’t possibly make up what they would lose. She also raised the question of whether private funds should be required to pay for a government reimbursement that other organizations receive.

Even if President Trump receives and signs legislation to strip Planned Parenthood of all its federal funding, Planned Parenthood could still challenge in court whether such a restriction is constitutional.

In the last few years, federal courts across the country have denied other states’ efforts to block Planned Parenthood as an eligible provider of taxpayer-funded health, ruling that such moves violated the First Amendment right of free speech and free association to choose a medical provider, and the right of a clinic to provide abortion services under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, said Julie Cantor, an adjunct professor at UCLA who teaches a law class on reproductive medical ethics.

“The government’s behavior has to comport with the Constitution,” Cantor said.

Samantha Young is a contributor to, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in National/International

Last summer, as California was struggling through its most severe year of the recent drought, two California members of Congress unveiled legislation meant to ease the pain.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. David Valadao introduced, separately and respectively, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015 and the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. Though both are aimed primarily at their home state, the bills’ scope is West-wide.

Both seek more federal money for new water storage and infrastructure projects. Both would expedite environmental review of those projects, and maximize water supply for farms and communities. And both “contain provisions that could alter the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and, in some cases, potentially set a precedent for how federal agencies address endangered and threatened species,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Those precedents include limiting federal agencies’ ability to manage stream flows for endangered fish. 

Beyond these similarities, the bills take wildly different paths. Feinstein’s bill (preferred by environmentalists) focuses on water recycling and desalination; Valadao’s focuses on squeezing more from rivers. Still, as summer stretched into fall with little relief for sun-blasted California, there was hope the two could find common ground. More than 100 farm groups and water authorities signed a letter in October asking Congress to compromise. Environmental groups—despite their opposition to the endangered species implications—agreed something needed to be done.

Yet the year ended without any progress.

Not only were Feinstein and Valadao’s bills caught up in political bickering; Congress also failed to pass any of the six or so other drought relief bills introduced by Western lawmakers. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, never introduced the comprehensive drought package at which she’d hinted.

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Senate reconvened. Despite El Niño’s recent snow and rain, the drought will march on. Lawmakers in 2016 will be faced with the same challenges they failed to address in 2015: securing water for agriculture and communities. Planning for a drier, more-populous future. Protecting water-dependent fish and wildlife. Will they do any better?

Jimmy Hague, director of the Center for Water Resources with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is skeptical. If Congress wasn’t able to reach a compromise in 2015, why would 2016 be any different?

“It is really difficult to get consensus on water legislation,” Hague says. “All the controversy between those two bills still exists, and now we’ve added a presidential election year on top of it.”

Nonetheless, Hague thinks that Western water woes will get a helping hand from the feds in 2016. That’s because there are at least 20 measures that agencies can implement without congressional action. Many were detailed in a list of recommendations that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy submitted to the White House last summer—around the same time Feinstein and Valadao were unveiling their bills. 

Compared to the controversial congressional legislation, the list didn’t exactly grab headlines. While legislation calls for desalination plants and dam-building, the conservation groups’ ideas include things like allowing the Internal Revenue Service to include “water donations” as a tax write-off, and encouraging the Bureau of Reclamation to fill and draw down reservoirs based on actual conditions rather than set-in-stone calendar dates.

Still, while Congress’ plans have stalled, these smaller administrative solutions may be gaining traction. Several were implemented in 2015, including an expansion of the Bureau of Reclamation’s “WaterSMART” program. Among other things, WaterSMART grants have been used to reduce leakage in aging irrigation canals. That keeps more water in rivers for fish and wildlife. A project on Montana’s Sun River saved 10,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Hague believes that the Obama administration will keep quietly plugging away at similar drought resilience projects in 2016 — stuff that doesn’t get much attention, but could have big impacts. And lawmakers, for their part, say they’re committed to doing better. Nine Western senators, both Democrat and Republican, wrote a letter asking Murkowski (who chairs the committee though which all drought bills must pass) not to give up on drought negotiations. Murkowski’s spokesman, Michael Tadeo, wrote that the senator has no plans to do so: Drought is among her top priorities for the year. 

Yet in a Congress where snowballs are held up to disprove global warming, there are fears that this winter’s rain and snow might derail progress on drought negotiations.

“There’s been this pattern,” Hague says. “There’s a drought, and people freak out about it and work on solutions, and then it rains, and they forget about it. And then the cycle repeats itself.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

The struggle to gain protection for critical land and water resources, wildlife, Native American cultural sites and spectacular landscapes within the California desert has gone on for more than a decade. With support from a wide group of constituents, including off-roaders, businesspeople, faith leaders, conservationists and veterans, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has developed strong, balanced legislation—but Congress has been either unwilling or unable to act.

Her latest proposal, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, hasn’t even been scheduled for a committee hearing, and no bill was introduced in the House. So, the senator pushed forward to safeguard our precious public lands by asking the president to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to declare three new desert national monuments—Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains.

The responses from editorial boards at The Desert Sun, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside and the Orange County Register were disappointing and perplexing. While editors acknowledged the need for protection of the California desert, they chose to advance arguments defying all logic. The Desert Sun applauded Feinstein’s conservation efforts and even said the proposed national monuments “would be great additions to the nation’s protected lands”—but then slammed the senator for turning to the Antiquities Act to accomplish this goal. Instead,Desert Sun editors argued that we should return to a dysfunctional Congress that is intent on blocking any public-lands legislation, no matter how broad and diverse its support in local communities.

In an editorial published by both The Press Enterprise and Orange County Register, Feinstein was accused of being eager to “cede congressional powers” to the executive branch because of her request that the president take action. That argument is certainly hard to swallow, given the senator has spent nearly 10 years trying to push desert-conservation legislation through Congress. The same editorial gave Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, a soapbox to spout misinformation about both the Antiquities Act and the nature of national monuments. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, McClintock has consistently blocked conservation efforts. He proposes that Feinstein and the president would be conspiring “to declare vast tracts of land off-use” if they proceed with the designation of the new national monuments. McClintock claims they would benefit an “elite few granted restricted use.” In reality, it would be mining, solar and wind projects that would restrict access to an “elite few,” while creating these monuments would benefit the greatest number of people by ensuring recreational access for equestrians, hikers, hunters, rock-hounders and off-roaders on designated routes.

Use of the Antiquities Act—which grants the president the authority to declare national monuments on lands controlled or owned by the federal government—has been used almost equally by Democrats and Republicans alike. One need look no further than Joshua Tree or Death Valley to see the success of national monuments in providing protection for natural resources and conserving sites with cultural, historic and scientific value, as the act prescribes. Both places were initially established as national monuments, the former by Republican Herbert Hoover, and the latter by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their elevation to national parks by Congress through the California Desert Protection Act only increased their value to the community.

The proposed Mojave Trails National Monument would connect Joshua Tree National Park to the Mojave National Preserve and protect significant wildlife corridors. This region includes the longest intact stretch of historic Route 66 and the best-preserved encampment from World War II’s desert training center, Iron Mountain. Important Native American trading routes and sacred trails crisscross the landscape.

Castle Mountains contains 36 species of rare plants, including some of the finest native desert grasslands in the entire California Desert. This is home to healthy populations of golden eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bobcats. It’s also a target location for reintroduction of pronghorn, the world’s second-fastest terrestrial mammal. Beneath the shadow of Hart Peak are rich Native American archaeological sites and the historic gold mining ghost town of Hart.

For many Coachella Valley residents, the dramatic landscape of the proposed Sand to Snow National Monument is an everyday sight, including Southern California’s highest peak, Mount San Gorgonio, and its longest river, the Santa Ana. This area includes alpine peaks, forests, Joshua tree woodlands and two of California’s three deserts, the Colorado and the Mojave. Its mountains are the most botanically diverse in the contiguous United States. This is critical habitat for migrating birds, black bears and bighorn sheep, and it contains culturally significant Native American sites. For the 18 million people who live within a two-hour drive of this proposed monument, there are great opportunities to get outside and enjoy wide-open spaces.

We are fortunate here in the Coachella Valley to be surrounded by the wild beauty of the desert. It is the reason many of us came to live, raise families, start businesses and retire here. With public lands close by, both residents and visitors have the opportunity to connect with nature. I count myself among them. I have enjoyed exploring these natural areas as an avid hiker and camper, and I’ve visited remote sites accessible only by four-wheel drive. Protecting these landscapes preserves the quality of life that we enjoy. That’s why so many Coachella Valley businesses and organizations support the establishment of these monuments—using either legislation or presidential proclamation. This includes my own organization, Great Outdoors Palm Springs (GOPS), an all-volunteer group that educates, promotes and conducts camping and hiking activities for the Coachella Valley’s growing LGBTQ community.

While we remain committed to passing Sen. Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, we recognize the opportunity to protect some of the lands contained in that legislation now. So we also call on the president to designate three new desert national monuments, to ensure that the pristine public lands all around us remain for generations to come.

Scott Connelly is the vice president for outings of Great Outdoors Palm Springs.

Published in Community Voices

If you tuned into the debate on a drought bill in the House earlier this month, you would have gotten a bleak picture of the agriculture industry in a state that fills the produce aisles in much of the rest of the country.

You also would have heard the water shortage blamed on radical environmentalists who sacrificed farms to protect fish in California, and the failure to build any new dams over the last 40 years. The Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015, written to correct those problems, passed 245-176 on Thursday, July 16, with only five Democrats joining nearly all Republicans to support it.

“We’ve watched our lawns turn brown; we’ve watched our water bills skyrocket; we’ve watched businesses shut down; we’ve watched thousands of farm workers thrown out of work,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We will not solve our water shortage until we build more dams; that’s what our bill does.”

Despite McClintock’s rhetoric, California’s agriculture employment has actually grown in recent years. And California stopped building dams decades ago in large part because 1,500 already occupied most stretches of rivers where dams make economic sense.

Despite its passage, the House bill is going nowhere fast. The White House threatened a veto. The Interior Department sent a letter arguing that the bill could unintentionally worsen water shortages. Also, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is expected to be a major player in drafting a Senate bill, stressed that she opposes provisions in the House bill that “would violate environmental law.”

“We need to facilitate water transfers and maximize water pumping without violating environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act or biological opinions,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee that would draft a Senate bill, plans to craft West-wide legislation, but not until the fall. “Senator Feinstein’s ideas will be central to moving that forward,” Murkowski’s spokesman Robert Dillon told High Country News.

There’s no question that these are tense times for Central Valley farmers. Agriculture jobs in the San Joaquin region in March, the most recent month with state data, were down by 4,000 from last year to 164,200. But what’s unexpected is that they’re up from 2011, before the drought. Locally, they’re not even down year-to-date: In the desert region (Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties), there were 25,600 jobs in March—1,100 more than the same month a year before. And statewide, average annual agriculture employment actually grew slightly from 2013 to 2014, continuing a decade-long trend that’s driven by a shift to more labor-intensive crops like fruits and almonds. Still, the drought has forced some farmers in the Central Valley and elsewhere to reduce their workforces as they’ve fallowed fields because of water shortages.

Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California at Davis, questioned the reasoning behind provisions in the House bill that would streamline permitting for water storage projects to add capacity at Shasta Lake and construct new reservoirs at Sites, Temperance Flat and Los Vaqueros. “Additional storage would be useful, but it’s not clear it would be cost-effective or the best investment,” he said.

Even if all the proposed storage had been built and filled before the drought, the state still would be low on water after four years of extreme drought. Lund said that the bill’s sponsors overstate how much water is available in California, and that the state would be better off with a multi-pronged approach that includes more recycling of wastewater, recharging of groundwater during wet times, constructing water pipelines, and some additional storage projects.

To alleviate water shortages for agriculture, the House bill also would repeal the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, which aims to restore salmon runs and 60 miles of the river that had been dry much of the year.

“Farmers could take every drop of water and leave a dry streambed,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer for Natural Resource Defense Council. “I don’t think that’s the vision of the rivers of the West that most Americans have.”

This was one of many provisions opposed by the Interior Department, because it would “negatively impact our ability to protect Delta fish and wildlife in the long-term; particularly those species listed under federal and state endangered species laws,” the Interior Department said in a letter.

What’s more, Interior’s letter warned the bill would have the “unintended consequence of impeding an effective and timely response to the continuing drought while providing no additional water to hard hit communities.”

But with the Senate moving slowing on its bill and a presidential veto in the mix, it’s impossible to predict what if any provisions in the House bill might endure.

“It’s too early to say. This could be a major step toward dramatically rolling back environmental protections in California or just another act of theater by far-right politicians in Congress,” Obegi said.

Elizabeth Shogren is the D.C. correspondent for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California’s Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water.

Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well-drilling permits were issued, compared to just 69 during the same period last year—prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers.

In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: “Congress created Dust Bowl” and “Man-made Drought,” expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms.

In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered-species protections and invalidating the federal mandate to restore the San Joaquin River, so that pumping from the Delta to the Central Valley could be increased. In March, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sought more “flexibility” to transfer water from wetter northern regions to the south’s water-starved farms and cities, and to expand Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, for storing more water. Just last week, five Central Valley water agencies announced their own audacious plan to overcome the drought: Fill the California Aqueduct with groundwater, and reverse its normal flow along one roughly 50-mile section in order to deliver moisture to the valley’s bone-dry western edge.

In California, the worst political sin during times of extreme aridness is the appearance of idleness. However, while politicians maneuver for temporary engineering fixes and regulatory rollbacks, other Westerners argue that the old solutions to water scarcity won’t end the current crisis, or protect us from future ones.

Water expert Peter Gleick says California and the West have reached “peak water,” with more water promised to farms and cities than mountains and rivers can provide. Worse, the region could fall into a “megadrought,” lasting decades or centuries. Bigger reservoirs and new wells will bring no relief without an adequate water supply. This raises the question: Will California take realistic measures to deal with its water crisis, or succumb to political inertia and lack of rain?

The last decade’s unrelenting droughts have forced Westerners to re-evaluate the definition of a “normal” water supply. B. Lynn Ingram, a University of California earth-science professor and author of The West Without Water, didn’t have to look far to find major periods of aridity in the past. There was the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the 1976 to ’77 drought, known in California as the “year of no rain.” And yet, as economically and socially damaging as these events were, we have not witnessed the worst possible extremes—not by a long shot, says Ingram. The mid-Holocene drought, for example, persisted for 1,500 years, forcing vast migrations of Native peoples.

Add climate change to the risk of natural megadrought, and the future looks even bleaker. “The data shows that there are certainly periods of dryness that were longer and more intense than what we have in our 100 years of records,” says Elissa Lynn, program manager of the Climate Change Program at California’s Department of Water Resources. “The problem is that today, it’s hotter than it was in those periods—and that will exacerbate any drought problems we have.”

Lynn points out that the state’s snowpack, the source of about one-third of its water, is expected to decline by 48 to 65 percent this century. It has already dropped by 10 percent over 20 years. In early May, the water stored in remaining snowpack was just 18 percent of average. “We have to start making plans for its loss,” Lynn says.

The White House’s National Climate Assessment, released in May, reinforces that mandate. According to the report, temperature increases resulting from carbon pollution have played a large role in the snowline’s rapid retreat. Rising temperatures and shrinking water supplies are a double blow for farms: “The combination of a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold air outbreaks, and more frequent heat waves … increases agricultural water consumption,” the report says. “This combination of climate changes is projected to continue and intensify.”

Ingram says California and most of the West have entered an era in which water shortages can’t be solved through brute-force engineering. “We need to acknowledge how unreliable and uncertain our water supply is. It looks variable over a century. But if you go back in time, it’s even more variable. And that’s a little scary,” she says. “You can build bigger reservoirs, but if we’re heading into a drier period, you’re not going to have the water to fill them.”

She has some practical advice: “We need to be thinking about local efficiency—the use of wastewater-recycling and rainwater-harvesting,” she says. And in agricultural regions where the bulk of the state’s water is consumed, efficiency- and groundwater-monitoring must be priorities. (California doesn’t regulate groundwater-pumping, and the more aquifers are depleted, the less they can be leaned on during future droughts.)

Lynn of the Department of Water Resources agrees, pointing out that reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt will force water managers to take a “portfolio” approach—diversifying water supplies, increasing water conservation and recycling, and devising new storage methods, like banking water in aquifers in wet years, rather than in reservoirs.

The drought currently ravaging California is, indeed, partly “man-made.” But those responsible for “making” the drought are not politicians or regulators with soft spots for endangered fish. This drought, while natural in some sense, has likely been intensified by anyone who puts gasoline in a car, flips a light switch powered by coal- or gas-burning power plants—or turns on a faucet.

In California, an estimated one-fifth of overall energy is expended moving water to places it doesn’t naturally flow. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all to blame.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

When a racist rancher in Nevada and his armed supporters can command headlines by claiming to own and control publicly owned lands, perhaps it’s time to remind Westerners about the history of the nation’s public-land heritage.

Recall that it is we, the American people, who own the public lands that make up so much of our Western states. These great open spaces are the birthright of all of us, not just the residents of Nevada or California or other Western states. The question of ownership of the public lands was settled by the founding fathers, in favor of you and me, by the Maryland compromise reached in 1781, and carried forward in the property clause of Article IV in the United States Constitution.

On occasion, diehard malcontents such as Cliven Bundy emerge to promote so-called "Sagebrush Rebellions" to turn the public lands over to the states as a conduit for handing them out to resource raiders and private interests. Governors and state legislatures, most recently in Utah, are sometimes drawn into endorsing these movements, only to see them fade away in the face of public opinion.

While this latest fracas is fresh in our minds, let me speak up for the employees of the Bureau of Land Management, who have been demonized by Fox News' Sean Hannity and threatened by rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers. BLM staffers are dedicated public servants who struggle with the unenviable task of juggling the conflicting demands of ranchers, miners, oil and gas companies, sportsmen and conservationists. They deserve our respect and our gratitude.

I believe that the whole sorry Bundy episode has given us an opportunity to renew our commitment to conservation. We can do that by calling on President Barack Obama to take action to protect more of the special places on our public lands.

He can begin by using the Antiquities Act to establish more national monuments. Some may counsel caution in light of the recent House passage of a bill by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to gut the law. However, the best way to protect and preserve the Antiquities Act is to use it visibly and vigorously, thereby demonstrating once again the broad public support it has enjoyed for more than 100 years.

The president could start with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill to protect a million acres in the Mojave Desert of California—including land adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Or he could take up Maine Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud’s bill to protect the scores of small islands that host seabird colonies off the coast of Maine. The president can use his authority under the Antiquities Act to take these bills and their establishing language and designate the lands in questions as new national monuments.

President Obama could also review the list of our existing national parks and monuments, many of which are in need of expansion because these areas are threatened by encroaching strip mining, drilling or other incompatible development. He could start out in the majestic expanses of Southern Utah, where Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks all need additional lands to protect their archaeological sites and unique geological formations.

And at Yellowstone National Park, the migratory herds of bison, elk and other wildlife all need more space, which can be best obtained by designating the forest lands to the West as a national monument. There are many other areas where local residents are voicing support for new national monuments, including the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Idaho, the Vermillion Basin in Colorado and the Owyhee Canyons in Oregon.

The president also has the authority to add lands to our National Wildlife Refuge System. There is an urgent need to create a system of refuges to protect the endangered greater sage grouse that inhabits the sagebrush seas that stretch across public lands in seven Western states.

In addition, the Antiquities Act could be used to protect fisheries and endangered coral system in our marine waters. Bristol Bay off Western Alaska is the most prolific of our fisheries, the passage through which millions of salmon migrate to spawn throughout the river systems of Alaska. The little-known deep-water corals adjoining the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea also deserve enhanced protection.

There is much to be done, and President Obama should not wait until the 11th hour to act. He should start now by advancing proposals, explaining the urgency of conservation, generating the visibility of the issues at stake and asking all Americans to voice their opinions. He should invite Congress to take legislative action, making it clear that he will act if it doesn’t.

A robust conservation program, following in the tradition begun by President Theodore Roosevelt, will be an enduring accomplishment for President Obama, a gift to future generations from his time in office.

Bruce Babbitt, an Interior Department secretary under President Bill Clinton, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated service of High Country News. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is working on conservation planning in the Amazon River Basin as a fellow of the Blue Moon Fund.

Published in Community Voices