WASHINGTON — The California drought is a dangerous opportunity for politicians.
Water cutbacks in the state's Central Valley give office-seekers a chance to favor farmers and denounce the status quo. Newcomers gain entree into a region where they are little known. And all that makes water a wedge issue for candidates like Carly Fiorina, now seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer.
"This is the single most pressing issue that the San Joaquin Valley faces in its relationship with the federal government," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said, "so of course it will dominate the election agenda in the Valley."
But like any political weapon, drought can cut two ways.
The basic conflict revolves around efforts, mandated by the Endangered Species Act, to protect species including Chinook salmon and the Delta smelt. In recent years, court orders and agency decisions have curtailed water deliveries to farms in order to keep the species from extinction.
In attacking environmental protections that restrict water deliveries, Fiorina and GOP gubernatorial contender Meg Whitman in particular risk antagonizing moderates long associated with their own Silicon Valley roots.
Incumbents, too, face a political challenge. Boxer, for one, is a longtime environmental champion who must now show she feels the Valley's pain and is doing something about it.
Other incumbents with historically closer ties to Valley farmers, like Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, are even more aggressive in touting their work on farmers' behalf. A hint of pre-emption, of fending off anticipated attacks, flavored Costa's proclamation in a recent press release that "for the past 18 months, Congressman Cardoza and I have worked tirelessly to bring relief to our Valley."
In sum, though the general election is still 11 months away, the water maneuvering is well underway.
"They're paying very, very close attention," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said of the myriad GOP candidates for statewide office. "I've taken calls from all of them; they all want to know about it."
Fiorina named Nunes as one of her four top water advisers. Their aggressive rhetoric is certainly aligned. When state irrigation officials announced Tuesday a 5 percent water allocation, both Fiorina and Nunes blamed Boxer for, as Fiorina put it, placing "a small fish ahead of the livelihood of California's farmers and farm workers."
Boxer responded that she is "deeply concerned about the initial water allocations, which show the seriousness of this water crisis," and she stressed her support for projects that would help deliver more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The Valley's conventional wisdom is generally harshly put, as when Cardoza called the 5 percent allocation "an abomination," Costa called it "unacceptable" and both suggested environmental rules should be loosened.
"The state's water shortages are being exacerbated by the regulatory drought," Cardoza declared.
In certain Valley circles, this narrative has become nearly locked in place. Put-upon government officials point out that environmental protections only account for about one-quarter of the irrigation pumping restrictions this year; the rest results from dry climatic conditions. Nonetheless, when the battle is cast as fish vs. farmers, it sounds much better to be on the side of the farmers.
Whitman, for instance, drew fire from a GOP primary competitor last month following revelations that Whitman's charitable foundation contributed to an environmental group working to preserve the Sacrament-San Joaquin Delta.
The Whitman foundation's $100,000 contribution to the Environmental Defense Fund rendered her vulnerable to the damning characterization that, as a spokesman for Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner put it, Whitman "writes huge checks to opponents of California farmers."
As if in political expiation, Whitman joined Valley farmers earlier this year in calling for environmental restrictions to be eased so that more irrigation water could flow. Poizner and a third Republican, former Bay Area congressman Tom Campbell, have likewise called for easing Endangered Species Act requirements.
The Obama administration so far has resisted loosening environmental rules, and experienced lawmakers including the newly elected Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, say it would be shortsighted to start exempting projects from the Endangered Species Act.
"Republicans and Democrats alike have enacted environmental laws to protect our air, our water and our environmental legacy," Boxer said. "It's very important that these laws be administered fairly to make sure they work effectively."
Now chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer thinks her long-standing support for improving California's water infrastructure has been frequently underestimated. This may be one reason why the former Marin County resident has traditionally struggled in the Valley.
Running against former Fresno-area legislator Bill Jones in 2004, Boxer won Merced, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties but lost Fresno, Kings, Madera, Stanislaus and Tulare counties.
In a more recent sign of where her political strength resides, Boxer has received 10 times more in campaign contributions from residents of Beverly Hills than from residents of Modesto, a compilation from CQ Moneyline shows.
Tellingly, Boxer recently joined Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in supporting a National Academy of Sciences study into two "biological opinions" that govern California irrigation deliveries. Farmers hope the second-guessing will result in revised water delivery decisions. Boxer doesn't go that far, instead emphasizing her belief that "the more science the better."
The National Research Council staff is now assembling the committee to conduct the initial study, due next March.