New Bill Comes Down To ‘Fish Or Farms’


USFWS Photo/Steve Martarano

A new bill proposal will reach the House on Wednesday for voting that could affect fisheries throughout Northern California.  The nut of H.R. 23, The Gaining Responsibility on Water Act of 2017, introduced by California Rep.  David G. Valadao (R), who serves Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern Counties,  involves water approrpriation into those heavy farmland areas of the Central Valley from other areas of California.

SoCal Rep. Ken Calvert (R) helped Valadao introduce the bill back in January.

California Senators Dianne Feinstein (D) and Kamala Harris (D) both oppose Valadao’s current bill, citing the potential of federal government interference:

“We oppose Congressman Valadao’s bill to weaken California’s ability to manage its own natural resources. California’s Central Valley helps feed the world. It deserves sensible and responsible water solutions—this measure doesn’t even come close to meeting that test. His legislation would preempt existing California environmental laws and regulations, giving the Trump administration greater control over water management in our state.

“Science should be at the center of all decisions affecting California’s water supply. This bill would eliminate the existing biological opinions required under the Endangered Species Act. It also prevents California from using new scientific data to manage our water supply by reverting us back to outdated limits set more than two decades ago.

“Congressman Valadao’s bill would set back the progress made to find a balanced solution to California’s drought. If this bill passes the House of Representatives, we will fight to defeat it in the Senate.”

The Fresno Bee also weighed in, referring the bill as a “fish or farms” struggle:

In the middle of this political brawl are growers who have have long felt that the state’s water policies prioritize fish over farms. Surplus water is allowed to flow out into the Pacific Ocean in order to protect the ecosystems of fish like salmon and steelhead. They want it flowing to their land instead.

“Our water supply has been dramatically reduced in recent years and it’s critically important for our country that we have the capability to grow safe, affordable, nutritious food, and without water it’s just not possible,” said William Bourdeau, executive vice president of Harris Farms in Fresno County.

Farmers say they have seen almost no water from the north due to the severe drought which has recently ended. Bourdeau said the problem is not entirely nature’s fault and that the state’s water policies have created a “regulatory drought.”

Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit agricultural group, said “even in dry years, Mother Nature provides water in California,” but that farmers often don’t see a drop due to regulations.

“The current system is broken and this bill continues to step in the right direction of trying to secure a more reliable water future for this area,” Jacobsen said.

Fishing interests see a very different kind of threat: The bill, they say, would be a death sentence for their industry.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has a detailed breakdown of why conservations oppose the plan. Here’s a sample:

H.R. 23 (Rep. Valadao, R-CA) would radically preempt California law, preventing the State from managing its rivers, fisheries, and water diversions.  This bill would preempt California law as applied to the federal Central Valley Project, overturning more than a century of deference to state law under the Reclamation Act of 1902.  But the preemption of state law in H.R. 23 doesn’t stop there – the bill would also prevent the State of California from managing California’s own State Water Project consistent with the requirements of state law, and would prevent the State from managing water rights and diversions in the Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, and throughout the Bay-Delta watershed to protect salmon or other native fish species.  And this section (Section 108) of H.R. 23 would also prohibit implementation of the Endangered Species Act, preventing the agencies from ensuring that operations of these massive water projects do not drive salmon or other native fish species extinct. 

And that’s just one section of this massive anti-environmental bill. Other sections would:

  • Effectively stop the restoration of the San Joaquin River and its native salmon runs as required by state law, federal law, and a binding court settlement.  Instead, the bill would permanently dry up sixty miles of California’s second longest river, diverting every drop of the river for agriculture, in violation of state law. (Section 113)
  • Eviscerate key provisions of the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, including:

o   Requirements to provide instream flows to help protect salmon and to provide funding for habitat restoration and wildlife refuges, which were intended to help mitigate some of the environmental harm caused by the Central Valley Project. (Sections 105, 106, and 107)

o   Limitations on water supply contracts intended to prevent massive taxpayer subsidies, minimum water conservation standards, and limits on water transfers. (Sections 103 and 104)

  • Authorize construction of new dams in California, including raising Shasta Dam (which would violate state law), and waive the public’s right to provide input on new dams and other infrastructure projects like the Delta tunnels under the National Environmental Policy Act. (Sections 107 and 110)
  • Overturn recent court decisions protecting the Trinity River and its native salmon runs (Title 4)
  • Limit public and agency review and comment on new dams and infrastructure across the Western United States, in a manner that weakens environmental protections for new infrastructure. (Titles 5 and 6)
  • Limit the ability of the United States to condition water diversions to protect healthy rivers, economically important fisheries, and public lands, in order to protect state water rights. (Title 7) 

If this sounds familiar, that’s because H.R. 23 is very similar to legislation that Rep. Valadao and his radical colleagues have pushed in the House since 2011, including H.R. 1837 of 2011-2012H.R. 3964 of 2014H.R. 5781 of 2014, and H.R. 2898 of 2015.  Those bills were repeatedly opposed by the State of California, Attorney General (now Senator) Kamala Harris, Senator Feinstein, the majority of California’s delegation in the House of Representatives, local governments, commercial fishermen, and conservation groups.  Newspaper editorials across the State have opposed these radical bills. 

 Here is some more opposition from a fishing perspective via a press release from the Golden Gate Salmon Association. 

A bill set for vote on Wednesday in the US House of Representatives would weaken or eliminate protections for California’s rivers, salmon fishery, and Bay-Delta estuary, as well as preempt California state law.  The bill, H.R. 23, The Gaining Responsibility on Water Act of 2017, (Valadao) is similar to other bills from House San Joaquin Valley representatives the last few years aimed at moving more Northern California water to growers in the arid western San Joaquin Valley.  In addition to harming Central Valley salmon, which provide for thousands of fishing related jobs in California and Oregon, water quality for Delta farmers would also be degraded. 

H.R. 23 would establish a dangerous precedent of federal usurpation of state rights by explicitly preempting state water law and water rights.  This would overturn more than a century of precedent under the 1902 Reclamation Act.   H.R. 23 also directs the United States to breach its obligations under a court-approved settlement to restore the San Joaquin River

“This is San Joaquin Valley politicians dictating to the entire state how water from Northern California should be diverted to them, no matter the cost to everyone else,” said GGSA executive director John McManus.  “Without a doubt, H.R. 23 would have devastating effects on salmon fishermen and thousands of small businesses that rely on salmon.”


“California’s Bay-Delta estuary is a key waterway traversed by salmon. This bill would destroy what’s left of it at great cost to fishing families and communities that depend on salmon,” said GGSA vice chairman Mike Aughney.

The closure of the salmon fishery in 2008 and 2009 resulted in thousands of lost jobs in California and Oregon. On top of that the last several fishing seasons have been very poor due to the drought and water management decisions that put salmon and salmon fishing families last. 

H.R. 23 permanently puts last the livelihoods of commercial and recreational salmon fishermen, Delta farmers, fishing guides, tackle shops, and communities across California and along the West Coast. The bill would greatly harm the commercially valuable fall run salmon and increase the risk that winter-run Chinook salmon and other native fish species go extinct.

Both of California’s US Senators and Governor Brown have come out against H.R. 23.   Details of the bill’s provisions and GGSA’s opposition are further spelled out here. GGSA joined the American Sportfishing Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the CalTrout in a letter to Congress outlining objections to the bill. 

H.R. 23 is being moved in Congress without receiving any public input from the State of California, hunting organizations, sport and commercial fishermen, tribes, or conservation groups. 

“GGSA is committed to addressing natural resources challenges in California through long-term solutions that restore and maintain the health of the environment on which our economy and the quality of our lives depend,” said McManus. “This bill would do the opposite. Investments in water recycling, storm water capture, water use efficiency, groundwater cleanup and other regional water supplies will allow more water for salmon while providing communities with drought-resistant water supplies that create local jobs and sustain our economy and environment.   These are real solutions to California’s drought, not H.R. 23.”