A proposed water law package for California that includes chances to expand water storage at New Melones Reservoir and target non-native fish in the Stanislaus River watershed is working its way through Congress this week.

The House passed the legislation Thursday, 360-61 with 12 abstaining, according to house clerk records. The Senate may vote on the proposed package today, said Jennifer Cressy with Rep. Tom McClintock’s staff in Washington, D.C.

Known as the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, and as the Water Resources Development Act, they are two separate pieces of legislation combined into one measure, Cressy said.

Sections of the proposed new water law that could have direct impacts in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties include maximizing water storage at New Melones and requiring the National Marine Fisheries Service to work with Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District to conduct a non-native predator research and pilot fish removal program.

The aim is to study effects of removing non-native striped bass, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, black bass and other non-native predator fish species from the Stanislaus River.

The proposed package also calls for taking about 80 acres of federal land from the Forest Service to be held in trust for the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians for non-gaming purposes.

Water’s for fighting

Like any legislation targeting water in the Golden State, it’s controversial, and some people are picking sides.

The Mother Lode’s Republican congressman likes it and so does the general manager for Calaveras County Water District. People at the California Farm Bureau Federation like it, and Stanislaus National Forest administrators are paying attention.

But the state’s two veteran Democratic senators are split on the package, and the director for Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte is opposed, saying more than 700 pages of proposed law basically means “big agriculture and big water districts are being pampered by the Republican-controlled Congress.”

CCWD in favor

Dave Eggerton, general manager for the Calaveras County Water District, said Thursday his agency supports the new legislation.

“Given the extended dry period in California, it is extremely important that we move forward with drought legislation,” he said. “It’s something that CCWD and the Association of California Water Agencies have been advocating for quite some time now.”

As of Thursday, language in the bill provides for CCWD to take part in a study working with the Bureau of Reclamation to analyze how the District could access storage in, or move water through, New Melones Reservoir under the district’s existing water rights, Eggerton said.

“This could provide the district with the ability to use its water within the basin, provide a backup supply for the Columbia Air Attack Base and to meet our obligations under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to help address the need for groundwater recharge in the critically over-drafted Eastern San Joaquin Groundwater Basin,” Eggerton said.

Eggerton emphasized that CCWD does not have the right to store any water in New Melones Reservoir. The district has pursued the right to store water in the reservoir over the past several years.

If the language in the bill pertaining to CCWD is approved, the study with Reclamation will need to be completed within 18 months, Eggerton said.

Eggerton also noted that Columbia Air Attack Base serves more than 4 million acres across the Central Sierra through a system of wood flumes and earth ditches in the fire-prone South Fork Stanislaus watershed, which lies directly between footprints of the devastating 2013 Rim Fire and the deadly, destructive 2015 Butte Fire.

Jon Sterling, the general manager for Groveland Community Services District, said his agency’s next board of directors meeting is Dec. 12 and he could not comment until the board offers an opinion. Representatives for Tuolumne Utilities District and Twain Harte Community Services District did not respond for comment.

State Farm Bureau Fed approves

Staff and leadership with the California Farm Bureau Federation touted their support for the pending law package earlier this week. They said passage of the proposed legislation will allow California to take full advantage of coming winter storms.

“As California faces a potential sixth consecutive drought year, it’s critical for Congress to do what it can to assure we can capture as much water as possible from winter storms, while maintaining protections for the environment,” Paul Wenger, president of the federation, said Wednesday. “The WIIN (Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation) bill offers a balanced solution to help pay for long-overdue water supply, conservation and recycling projects.”

The legislation offers bipartisan solutions for addressing California water shortages, as well as investment in ports, channels and other water infrastructure, and changes to improve drinking-water safety, California Farm Bureau Federation staff said.

“We’ve watched too often as water from winter storms has flowed uncaptured out to sea,” Wenger said. “We have to become more sophisticated at operating our water system to store as much water as we can while meeting environmental and other needs. This bill moves us in that direction and deserves congressional support.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation represents family farms and ranches with more than 48,000 members statewide.

Asked for perspective on the proposed law package, Tuolumne County Farm Bureau staff did not respond.

Stanislaus National Forest

Any new water law in the parched Golden State should interest the federal Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service. Last month, Ag Department staff announced the Forest Service has identified 36 million more dead trees up and down the Sierra Nevada since its last aerial survey in May.

That brought the total number of dead trees since 2010 to more than 102 million on 7.7 million acres of forests, according to federal agriculture and forest officials. In 2016 alone, more than 60 million trees have died. Millions more trees are weakened and expected to die in coming months and years.

Scott Tangenberg, acting supervisor for the Stanislaus National Forest, said Thursday he cannot comment on pending legislation. But he said the Forest Service in California is working with federal and state partners to share information and coordinate resources in response to natural resources impacted by drought.

“We recognize this drought is likely to be a long-duration event, with impacts possibly lasting for many years,” Tangenberg said. “The U.S. Forest Service in California is working with partners across all lands to remove hazardous fuels near homes and other infrastructure as well as restoring degraded forests and rangelands to improve resiliency to drought and fire.”

More than 50 percent of California’s surface waters come from national forests, Tangenberg said. “Stanislaus has been active in meadow restoration on the forest. Meadow restoration helps water quality by increasing the water table, decreasing streambank erosion and, by storing water in meadows, more water stays as groundwater, encouraging slower releases water in summer.”

The Forest Service is also working with state, local and community partners to develop water storage areas for livestock that are away from source streams, keeping cattle out of streams that later become part of California’s water supply, Tangenberg said.

Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center

John Buckley, director for the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, said the California Farm Bureau Federation and major water districts are strongly supporting the proposed legislation because “if it becomes law, at taxpayer expense it will grant a ‘wish list’ of long-sought objectives for agricultural interests that already consume the vast majority of water in California.”

Over and over throughout the drafted legislation, the bill gives authority to the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Interior to make legal judgments that will significantly affect water management as well as endangered species and other resources that are always harmed by significant water diversions, Buckley said.

With President-elect Donald Trump appointing the secretaries of Commerce and Interior, “the fox will be in total control of the hen house,” Buckley said.

“Water decisions are highly likely to be made with a high priority to benefit agriculture and industrial water users, rather than to provide the broad public benefits of water quality, wildlife, and recreation,” Buckley said.

The bill will allow increased opportunities for water districts to store water in New Melones Reservoir, but that authority may be relatively meaningless if most water years end up being normal or dry, Buckley added.

In the Stanislaus River downstream of Tuolumne County, the bill directs there to be the implementation of a non-native predatory fish removal program to kill off striped bass and other non-native fish that water districts blame for the great decline in salmon numbers.

Overall, the water bill appears to have been written almost entirely by pro-use legislators in partnership with big agriculture lobbyists and lobbyists with major water districts, Buckley said. For the average citizen, the proposed law means even less water may be available for highly stressed aquatic species and the need for improved flows to help water quality in California’s rivers.

McClintock responds

McClintock, who represents Calaveras and Tuolumne counties and the rest of California’s 4th Congressional District, said the bill is the product of many hours of negotiations between the House and Senate and between Republicans and Democrats.

“Like any compromise, I don’t like everything in it,” McClintock said. “But the net effect is an important step forward in protecting against the devastation of future droughts in California and catastrophic wildfire that threatens Lake Tahoe.”

The proposed law provides for $335 million for desperately-needed surface water storage, McClintock said. It opens a new era of hatcheries to provide for burgeoning populations of endangered fish species, and it adds flexibility to management of New Melones Reservoir and water transfers to assure water can be more efficiently moved to where it is most needed.

The law also adds protection to Northern California area of origin water rights, expedites review and approval of new projects, and updates flood control management criteria to make better use of existing reservoirs.

“In the last four years, the King Fire, the Butte Fire, the Rough Fire and the Rim Fire have destroyed more than a thousand square miles of forests in the Sierra,” McClintock said. “If we don’t restore forest management in the Tahoe Basin NOW, the next fire could reduce its magnificent forests to cinders, and clog the lake with ash and debris for decades to come.”

Also in the nation’s capital this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote part of the new draft law package, but her Democratic colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer, remained ambivalent. The two California senators have a prior track record of working together on major water legislation.