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Interior spending bill rider rankles WaterFix criticsInterior spending bill rider rankles WaterFix critics

A California congressman who chairs a key subcommittee proposes to curb legal challenges to Gov. Jerry Brown's Delta tunnels project, drawing criticism from the project's opponents.

Tim Hearden

May 17, 2018

5 Min Read

A California congressman who chairs a key subcommittee has inserted language in a spending bill that would curtail legal challenges to the California WaterFix project, drawing criticism from the project's opponents.

Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, who chairs the House of Representatives' Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, proposes that decisions regarding Gov. Jerry Brown's planned twin tunnel bypass through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta "shall hereafter not be subject to judicial review under any Federal or State law."

The language was added at the end of a 142-page fiscal 2019 spending bill for the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency, which Calvert released this week.

“The Interior Subcommittee has made every effort to balance a host of competing needs and provided the Interior Department, EPA and other agencies under our jurisdiction with the resources necessary to carry out their mission,” Calvert, of Riverside, said in a statement. He adds that the bill includes funding for various priorities, including efforts to prevent and combat wildfires and the development of an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast. 

"Once again, we provide important funding for EPA programs that clean our environment, but do not increase the size of the federal bureaucracy," Calvert says.

A sharp rebuke

The rider drew a sharp rebuke from Restore the Delta, an environmental group that opposes the tunnels. The group notes in a news release that Calvert has received numerous campaign contributions from Southern California developers and water purveyors, and asserts the congressman primarily serves their interests.

"Governor Brown, the Department of Water Resources, Metropolitan Water District, and Santa Clara Valley Water District have all told Californians for eight years that the Delta tunnels is an environmental project that will improve Delta fisheries and protect the ecosystem," says Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Restore the Delta's executive director. “If that’s true, why has the Brown administration remained silent while Congressman Calvert attempts to gut state and federal environmental regulations? The answer is simple—the tunnels have never been, nor will they ever be a green project, and this most recent effort would enable project participants to break ground on this flawed pet project before the end of Brown’s term."

Many water districts and San Joaquin Valley farm groups support the tunnels project, which received a boost last month when the Los Angeles area's Metropolitan Water District voted to contribute $10.8 billion toward the project. District officials say they hope to recoup some of the funds from the agricultural sector, as the district plans to sell or lease capacity in the tunnels to allow water deliveries or exchanges for other parties. The Santa Clara Valley Water District also voted recently to fully participate in WaterFix.

However, growers in the Delta region fear the tunnels would worsen water quality and that the massive construction effort would disrupt their operations. More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed by Sacramento-area local governments and other entities challenging various aspects of the project, the Sacramento Bee reports. Calvert told the newspaper in a statement that after more than a decade of studies and more than 50,000 pages of environmental reviews, affected parties have had "a plethora of opportunities" to express their views and the project should now move forward.

Other bill highlights

Though it has received the most attention, the WaterFix rider is one in a wide range of elements of the Interior spending bill. Here are some of the other highlights, according to Calvert's office and the House Appropriations Committee:

Environmental Protection Agency. The bill funds EPA at $7.958 billion, $100 million below the fiscal year 2018 level.  Within this total, EPA’s regulatory programs are reduced by $228 million below the current level.

The bill also targets additional funding to critical EPA air quality and infrastructure programs, including:

--$100 million for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grant program and $55 million for the Targeted AirShed Grant program to reduce air pollution in the nation's areas with the highest levels of ozone and PM2.5 ambient air concentrations;
--A total of $2.6 billion for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan fund, which states and localities use for water infrastructure projects;
--An increase of $40 million to accelerate the cleanup of Superfund sites to return them to productive use and spur economic development; and
--A total of $75 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program to leverage federal dollars to provide financing for more than $8 billion in water infrastructure projects.

Calvert says the bill reflects President Donald Trump's goal to rein in what he sees as outdated, unnecessary and potentially harmful regulations at the EPA. For example, it includes a full repeal of the controversial “Waters of the United States” regulation.

Wildland firefighting and prevention. In total, the bill funds wildland firefighting and prevention programs at $3.9 billion, fully funding the 10-year average for wildland fire suppression costs for both the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service, and providing robust additional funding – $500 million– for Forest Service suppression operations. The legislation also includes $655 million for hazardous fuels management, which is $30 million above the fiscal year 2018 level.

Federal payments to local communities. The bill provides $500 million for “Payments In Lieu of Taxes” (PILT), $35 million above the budget request. PILT provides funds for local governments in 49 states to help offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal lands within their counties. Without congressional action, many rural communities would face huge budget shortfalls affecting public safety, education, and other local government responsibilities, Calvert argues.

U.S. Forest Service. The bill includes $6.1 billion for the Forest Service, of which $3 billion is targeted to wildland fire prevention and suppression. The bill also provides a $19.5 million increase to combat pests, diseases, and invasive species in national forests and includes a provision prohibiting the Forest Service or BLM from issuing new closures of public lands to hunting and recreational shooting, except in the case of public safety.

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