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The Art of Writing a Letter

If you give them wiggle room, guess what? They will wiggle. And you will squirm.

Aug 12, 2013

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors are finding out that writing a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein asking her to support efforts to get more water the the west side isn't as easy as it looks. We have encouraged boards and city councils to write the Senator for support, but it's important to understand what you're asking for. Merely asking for generic 'support' isn't going to get anything done. We have 'generic' support right now. We also have very little water.

So, what to request? Congressman Devin Nunes convinced the House (and Jim Costa) to pass H.R. 1837 which would have restored about 1.4-million acre feet of water to valley farmers annually. His proposal would take us back to water rules established prior to the biological opinions that rule the delta pumps. No longer would the smelt be able to stop the pumps. Congressman Jim Costa supported Nunes' bill, but said at the time that it had no chance in the Senate. It certainly has no chance in the Senate if we just let them off the hook by accepting that it has no chance. A little 'heat' from the congressman might have made some difference.

Congressman Costa has his own legislation that would modify the pumping rules for a couple of months a year: ""Beginning on April 1 and ending on May 31, rates of pumping at the C.W. ‘Bill' Jones Pumping Plant and Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant shall not be reduced pursuant to the biological opinion of the National Marine Fisheries Service."

Costa's plan is better than nothing, but looks to allow 'wiggle room' for the bureaucrats who run the system. If you give them wiggle room, guess what? They will wiggle. And you will squirm. What will they do in the other months to make sure there is as little water as possible to pump in the two months? Given the chance to maneuver the water, our guess is that those who keep water from us now will keep water from us in the future.

Nunes' legislation appears to be more black and white, whereas Costa's is gray. We prefer black and white.

Here are the choices we have, as we see it, in order of preference:

1. Nunes H.R. 1837: This changes the law and allows 100% pumping.

2. 1-year moratorium on pumping restrictions: This is something we've advocated as a compromise to the Nunes legislation. It doesn't go as far as the Nunes bill in terms of changing the pumping rules forever, but it does allow 100% pumping for one year and a chance to get some water back into our aquifers. After all, the Sacramento Wastewater Treatment Plant has been given a 10-year moratoriium to clean up the sewage they dump into the delta. The stripped bass has been given a forever moratorium to eat all the smelt they want. Let's pump farm water for one year and see what happens.

3. The Costa plan: 2-months if better than nothing, but allows too much wiggle room for the bureaucrats.

Whatever we do, let's make the rules as simple and easy to understand as possible. If you give them an inch, they'll take a million acre-feet.

One more thing, the supes haven't noticed Congressman Costa's River Restoration legislation is helping the east side catch up with the west side in terms of drying up. Could we repeal River Restoratiion while we're at it? It's just a couple hundred-thousand acre feet.

Letter seeking Delta bill support reveals water politics


Fresno Bee staff


To Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, it was the easiest vote in the world.


He wanted his colleagues to approve sending a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her support for a House resolution that seeks more Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water for the Valley's west side.


But, as with so much else in politics, the request turned out to be anything but simple.


Larson's initial motion at Tuesday's meeting passed 3-0 — but Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Debbie Poochigian abstained. They wanted to mull it over and, for Borgeas, to check with other members of the Valley's congressional delegation before backing the letter.


The bill has been introduced by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. But Borgeas noted that in the past few years, Tulare Republican Devin Nunes also had introduced legislation that would increase delta pumping — including one last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.


Larson was frustrated. How could politics seep into a request so simple?


The board, he thought, should support all efforts — be they Republican or Democrat — to bring more water to the Valley's west side.


Still, he agreed to the delay — just a few hours until the afternoon.


At issue is Costa's H.R. 1927, which would tweak existing management plans — known as biological opinions — covering threatened delta smelt and endangered salmon to allow more pumping.
Johnny Amaral, Nunes' chief-of-staff, says Nunes' 2009 effort was almost identical to Costa's, but Costa's people say the current effort is more nuanced in that it wouldn't eliminate the biological opinions.


Nunes' 2009 effort would have suspended the biological opinions and set pumping levels at 100% of the contracted amounts annually. Democrats controlled the House at the time. The effort went nowhere.


But Nunes had better luck last year, with the Republicans in control. He succeeded in passing an ambitious, pro-agriculture water bill that would have significantly increased water deliveries to the Valley's west side.


Both Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, were opposed to the legislation. It died in the Senate.


"The fact of the matter is if Democrats in the House and Senate actually cared about a reliable water supply, they would have supported language to allow the pumps to run when it was offered in 2009," Amaral said.


"It's all just a big game to them, playing to their radical environmentalist pals. To quote Yogi Berra, it's 'deja vu all over again.' Except now, communities and families are being devastated for no good reason. It's time for the Senate to follow the leadership displayed in the House and do something useful — for once."


For starters, he said the Senate should pass its own legislation so both sides can have a starting position for negotiations. Costa's bill messes that up, he said, because it changes the House's already established position.


"It's like we're negotiating with ourselves right now," he said.


Costa has a different outlook. His strategy is for the House to pass something that has a chance to get through the Senate. He believes his current bill does that.


Which brings it all back around to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. They reconvened Tuesday afternoon and debated just what the letter to Feinstein should say.


Borgeas' suggestion was that it say the board supports not only Costa's current bill, but recognize other efforts, too, including ones "approved by the House but that have not yet been approved by the Senate."


It is important, Borgeas said, to give recognition to Nunes' efforts.


Supervisor Henry R. Perea then chimed in, saying that language went too far and "starts making it partisan."


So the specific reference to being "approved by the House" but "not yet approved by the Senate" was eliminated, and the final wording only referenced current and past efforts to increase west-side water deliveries.


The letter was finally approved — 5-0.


— John Ellis


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