New EPA rules could help Kern County growers

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

New Environmental Protection Agency rules unveiled last week by the Trump administration may increase the availability of water to Central Valley farmers, including those in Kern County.

The action is the latest in an ongoing battle over management of the federally operated Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which were constructed to capture rain and snowmelt and divert them to dry parts of California — particularly to agricultural interests.

Farmers pay into a system that guarantees an allocation of water even in years of drought. However, environmental protections of delta smelt trigger a protocol that instead turns off pumps and diverts water into the ocean instead of going south — leaving farmers without water they paid for and arguably doing little to protect the smelt.

According to locally elected officials, more than 100 billion gallons of water are flushed each year into the San Francisco Bay. An opinion piece published in last week’s Wall Street Journal says that the EPA rules were based on old data and that the recently adopted monitoring and pumping processes can protect the fish while preserving fresh water for state homeowners and farmers.

Last month Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 1, which would have upheld old regulations. The governor said they would have restricted his flexibility to increase water to Central and Southern Californians.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy drafted a joint statement with other neighboring congressman praising the EPA amendments.

“For years, communities across California have been denied water, while protected fish species have also struggled due to decade-old regulations based on even older science and data,” reads the statement.

McCarthy called last week’s actions by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to upgrade those regulations with updated biological opinions “a welcome step in the right direction.

“It is our hope that the implementation of these new regulations will bring better protections for listed fish species and the environment as well as increased flexibility regarding CVP and SWP operations to help ensure our constituents receive the water they are entitled to or contract and pay for.”

“California is the top agriculture-producing state in the nation,” said State Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove.

“Our hardworking farmers and farm workers deserve assurance that a similar measure which attacks their livelihoods will not be signed into law for future years.”

She thanked Newsom for vetoing the bill and implored lawmakers to incorporate the latest data and developments into modern environmental policies.

“Sacramento Democrats continue to push policies that punish the Central Valley by purposefully withholding the lifeblood that makes it possible for our farmers to produce food for the state and country,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong.

“In order to score political points, they would rather dump billions of gallons of precious water straight into the ocean than to provide the Central Valley with the water they desperately need,” he added.

“I will continue to fight against those irresponsible policies that continue to push one of the most important industries in Kern County.”

The new rules go into effect in mid January, according to a state staffer.

In the meantime, the Department of Water Resources is working on its own operation plan for SWP. The timeline remains unknown.

Most officials believe this latest development will not impact Indian Wells Valley groundwater management.

However, Kern County leaders have said that access to contracted water allocations is critical to success in maintaining agricultural operations, which feed into county revenue streams.

Story First Published: 2019-11-01