WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein quietly used a $915 billion spending bill to accomplish a long-standing and, in some circles, controversial goal of easing Central Valley water sales.
With one sentence, the 1,221-page bill signed Saturday by President Barack Obama helps the Westlands Water District and privately owned Kern Water Bank, among others, buy more from irrigation districts served by the federal Central Valley Project.
With a second sentence, the bill orders a study designed to streamline water sales, including those from north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to south of the Delta.
"The water transfer language inserted by Sen. Feinstein will add to the flexibility that we have sought, and it will certainly help us meet our water needs," Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham said in an interview Monday.
Feinstein describes the measure as a sensible way to move water around the state. But opponents, who had earlier resisted the proposals when presented as separate legislation, consider it a boon for some well-connected farmers.
"It's an earmark worth millions to the water merchants, who can buy water at rock-bottom prices and resell it," Patricia Schifferle, director of the environmental group Pacific Advocates, said in an interview Monday, adding that "there are a lot of things that sneak into these late-night bills."
And Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director of Restore the Delta, agreed Monday that the legislation "opens the door to problematic water transfers (that) could be used for speculation (and) development."
The issues are both technically complex and politically fraught, as is usually the case with California water.
In part, the legislation lifts several restrictions that a 1992 environmental law imposed on the transfer of Central Valley Project water. The federal project provides water at subsidized rates through a Redding-to-Bakersfield network of dams and canals.
The 1992 law, called the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, declared that irrigation districts could only sell their water if it would have otherwise been "consumptively used or irretrievably lost." The districts also could only sell water amounting to the average of what they actually received.
The rules were designed in part to limit water speculation and ensure irrigation districts were not selling contracted-for water that they really didn't have.
Operating under these existing rules, as well as others, federal officials last year oversaw the transfer of about 600,000 acre-feet of CVP water in California. This was about 10 percent of the total amount delivered through the project.
In 2009, Feinstein and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer wrote legislation essentially waiving the two rules for certain water transfers. A similar bill was written in the House by Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, Calif., and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Calif.
"The bill...will provide more flexibility in the system, allowing water to flow more freely around the Central Valley," Feinstein said when she introduced the bill in October 2009.
Birmingham added Monday that the revisions will "help to streamline the approval process" for water transfers. Feinstein has estimated that up to 80,000 acre-feet of additional water might be transferred under the new rules.
The 2009 legislation had not advanced beyond the Senate after it drew concerted opposition from environmentalists. The Sierra Club and Friends of the River, among other groups, charged in a June 2010 written statement that the bill would "seriously exacerbate conflict over California water use."
Under one scenario sketched by critics, customers such as the Kern Water Bank could now buy federal irrigation water from the CVP and then sell its state-delivered water to urban users and developers in Southern California.
A Kern Water Bank spokesman could not be reached to comment.
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