California’s Mismanaged High-Speed Rail Project Must End

High Speed Rail ConstructionIn 2008, California voters approved a bond for a high-speed rail line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with the fast-growing cities in the state’s Central Valley. With trains running at 220 miles per hour on dedicated tracks, California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) would be the first true high-speed rail line in the U.S. The project’s backers, including Governor Jerry Brown, promised that CAHSR would cost just $33 billion and be finished by 2022, including extensions to Sacramento and San Diego. It would whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes—fast enough, if European experience is a guide, to convince most air travelers on that route to take the train instead.

Ten years later, supporters have ample cause to reconsider. CAHSR’s costs have severely escalated: the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) now estimates that the train’s core segment alone, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, will cost from $77 billion to $98 billion. Promises that private investors would cover most of the costs have fallen through. Forecasts for the project’s completion date and travel times have also slipped. The fastest trains in the CHSRA’s current business plan have a running time of over three hours, and the first segment of the line—San Jose to Bakersfield, almost 200 miles short of completion—won’t open until 2029.

The project’s troubles have been largely self-inflicted, starting with poor route choices. At the south end of the line, from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, rather than proceeding in a direct route from Los Angeles to the northwest through Tejon Pass, roughly along Interstate 5, the planned line takes a detour to the northeast through Palmdale, a rapidly growing exurb, and enters the Central Valley through Tehachapi Pass. The CHSRA justified this choice by arguing that the Tejon route would require more tunnels and slow curves and be more vulnerable to earthquakes.

But in a convincing independent analysis, aerospace engineer and transportation activist Clem Tillier has called the CHSRA’s study of the Tejon alternative “a finely crafted web of distortions.” The study, Tillier wrote, used skewed assumptions guaranteed to produce a poor Tejon route. Most notably, the CHSRA supposed that no route could cross a planned residential development in a key portion of Tejon Pass. The CHSRA instead produced a Tejon alignment that veered around the development with sharp curves and six extra miles of tunnel, even though the additional tunnel would cost more than buying the entire development outright. Tillier concluded that a better Tejon alignment would save 12 minutes of travel time and $5 billion in construction costs over Tehachapi. These 12 minutes could make a critical difference to ridership, as most studies have found that trains rapidly lose riders to airplanes for journeys longer than about three hours. Speculation that the interests of real-estate developers rather than riders motivated the Tehachapi detour is hard to dismiss.

The CHSRA has also wasted large sums of money through poor management. Tillier has detailed how the Authority plans to spend billions to outfit Bay Area stations with unnecessary tunnels and viaducts, rather than making elementary improvements to operations. A state audit has shown that the CHSRA knowingly incurred massive additional cost risks by starting construction prematurely; desperate to show progress and to meet a deadline for federal funds, the CHSRA began construction in the Central Valley without buying all the land it needed, or even completing negotiations with the freight railroads whose rights-of-way it planned to use. The state auditor also criticized the CHSRA for hiring expensive consultants, over the objections of its former CEO, to do routine budgeting work.

Some of the worst revelations in the state auditor’s report concern basic failures of contract management. The CHSRA paid contractors without inspecting their work, and contract managers’ review of the quality and cost of finished products was often so shoddy that the auditor could not even conclude whether the CHSRA’s spending was justified. In one especially egregious case, in 2017, the CHSRA hired an external consultant to check the work of Parsons Brinckerhoff (now WSP USA), which had been paid $666 million for engineering consulting. The external consultant found that the CHSRA had not received finished work for 145 of 184 tasks that Parsons Brinckerhoff had called “complete.”

It seems clear that the CHSRA is too incompetent to manage a project of California HSR’s complexity. The Authority has promised to consider the audit’s recommendations, but as CHSRA has already been criticized for its lax management for years, such promises are scant comfort. Possibly the best chance to salvage the project would be to turn it over wholesale to a European or Japanese railroad with prior experience managing high-speed rail projects, but CHSRA’s work has been so slapdash that it’s hard to imagine a competent foreign entity wanting to take over the mess. (In 2009, the French national railroad SNCF offered to build the project along a slightly different route, and even lined up private funding. The CHSRA rebuffed the offer and kept silent about it for years, until the California legislature authorized public construction funds.)

Fortunately, only a small fraction of CAHSR’s projected cost—$1.4 billion out of nearly $100 billion total—has been spent so far. The question arises whether the remaining money, almost all of it coming from California taxpayers, could be put to better uses. Countless projects suggest themselves, ranging from road repair—the poor state of California’s roads is notorious—to shoring up the state’s precarious finances. Even within the narrow field of rail transit, some portion of CAHSR’s cost could be instead given to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has already demonstrated an ability to finish projects within reasonable budgets. A comparatively small amount of state aid to LA Metro would do far more for California’s environment and economy than CAHSR.

It’s hard to see why the project should continue. The CHSRA’s planning model has been to keep problems secret for as long as possible, then hope that all the money invested so far is enough to convince the public to keep throwing good money after bad. Fortunately, high-ranking officials—including the chair of the state assembly’s transportation committee, who recently called for the CHSRA chairman to resign—seem increasingly aware of the disaster that CAHSR has become. Incoming governor Gavin Newsom, unlike his predecessor, has at least questioned the project’s utility. More public pressure may persuade him to drop his support of CAHSR and put the money to better uses. Californians should demand the project’s immediate cancellation.

Bullet Train’s Benefits to Southern California Questioned at Hearing

High speed rail constructionSouthern California Democrats have said few, if any, critical words about the state rail authority’s decision in 2016 to drop Los Angeles as the starting point of the first segment of the statewide bullet train.

Rail officials announced at the time that they would instead invest the vast majority of available money to begin building from the Central Valley to the Bay Area.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) broached the topic at a House rail subcommittee hearing on Thursday, asking state rail officials and other witnesses how he can justify the project to his constituents.

“What do I tell people in Los Angeles,” said Lowenthal, the former chairman of the state Senate transportation committee. “We talk about the [rail’s benefits] to Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, but … when are we going to see things going on in Los Angeles? We are the population center.”

Under the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans, it is providing more than $700 million to install an electrical power system for the Bay Area’s Caltrain commuter system and another $400 million for a downtown San Francisco station, along with other much bigger investments that will flow through Santa Clara County. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Times

Jerry Brown Disses the Central Valley . . . Again

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 27: California Governor Jerry Brown announces his public employee pension reform plan October 27, 2011 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California. Gov. Brown proposed 12 major reforms for state and local pension systems that he claims would end abuses and reduce taypayer costs by billions of dollars. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

Many of my Central Valley legislative colleagues are furious that the staff at Governor Jerry Brown’s Water Commission have rigged the system so the recently announced proposed funding for Temperance Flat Reservoir is just that – flat.

It’s not surprising that environmentally-oriented staff at the California Water Commission (and other state agencies such as the State Water Resources Control Board or the multitude of regional water boards) would come down in favor of fish over people.

I hate to say it but it also won’t be surprising to see Brown and his appointees on the Water Commission go along with their staff recommendation and stiff the Central Valley.

Governor Brown has never respected the Central Valley as demonstrated by his stubbornness against spraying for the medfly during his first stint as Governor to more recently forcing an unwanted High Spending Rail onto us which is destroying our family homes, businesses and farms.

Even Brown’s “Twin Tunnels” project to divert water from the Delta is now really just aimed at helping his friends in Los Angeles.  Most of this water will flow through the Central Valley non-stop to Southern California.

The Proposition 1 water bond (which was approved by 67% of the voters in 2014) was originally drafted and passed by the legislature back in 2009.  For a variety of mostly political reasons it was postponed going on the ballot for five years and ultimately parred back from an $11 billion water bond to one of only $7 billion before it hit the ballot.

Most critical was that the original amount dedicated to water storage projects (such as Temperance Flat or Sites Reservoir) was cut from $3 billion to $2.75 billion.  Brown and even some rogue farm groups had tried to cut it back to under $2 billion.  (That foolish idea was beaten back by Central Valley legislators but that’s another story.)

Adding insult to injury, the Water Commission’s staff recently recommended giving almost $1 billion to Sites Reservoir but only a lousy $170 million to Temperance Flat.

Why the funding gap between the two?

Again, Brown’s long history of treating the Central Valley with neglect and disdain is partly to blame.

The other reason is that Brown has announced when he leaves office next year he will retire to family-owned land up in Colusa County that is being “modernized” with money his Dad made from Indonesia oil deals decades ago. Colusa County unsurprisingly is also the home of the proposed Sites Reservoir.

To the detriment of those needing water from Temperance Flat, Brown is using state funding to curry favor with his future neighbors in Colusa County who overwhelmingly support building Sites Reservoir.

As the late Speaker Tip O’Neill once said – all politics is local.

There is a little bit of good news for the area of the Central Valley I represent – of the Proposition 1 money set aside for water quality and improvement projects, over $52 million (29%) has already gone out to water projects in Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.  An additional $121 million is still in the pipeline for these four counties.

Thank goodness for small favors.

State Senator Andy Vidak proudly represents the residents of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Loss of local control a big issue in new water tax fight

Shower head water droughtThroughout his tenure as governor, Jerry Brown has consistently pursued new revenue for transportation, housing and water. The Legislature, whose default reaction to any problem is to raise taxes on middle-class Californians, has only been too happy to oblige. As a result, California drivers were hit last year with an annual $5 billion gas and car tax and property owners were burdened with a new tax on real estate recording documents to fund affordable housing. As if those tax hikes were not bad enough, now comes the third in a trifecta of tax insults: a new tax on water used by homes and businesses. That’s right, the Legislature is preparing to tax a public good that is essential to life, a precedent-setting tax that is unheard of anywhere else in the nation.

Supporters of the bill will argue that the tax is needed because roughly one million people (mostly in the Central Valley) don’t have access to consistently clean drinking water. This is a legitimate problem due to decades of neglecting basic infrastructure, contamination of water supplies and the failure to make access to water delivery the priority it deserves.

But raising taxes is the wrong solution to this problem. It is unconscionable that California, which has a record-high $130 billion General Fund budget with a $6 billion surplus, can’t provide clean drinking water to a million people using existing resources. Is this not the first role of government, providing a public good essential to life? Moreover, why should taxpayers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento have to pay higher water bills for a problem that is mostly limited to groundwater contamination in the Central Valley?

Most Californians haven’t even heard of this proposed tax hike. But that’s only because the Legislature is going out of its way to keep it hidden. Originally introduced as Senate Bill 623, the bill failed to advance last year because of widespread opposition. Nearly all residential homeowners would pay a dollar a month if this tax went through. The tax works on a sliding scale based on meter size — heavy commercial and industrial water users could pay up to $10/month. Not content to just abandon the bill, the governor has now decided to drop this tax in a budget trailer bill. These bills, often dozens of pages long with multiple topics, is the perfect place to hide a tax. If the bill moves forward, taxpayer advocates will watch carefully to ensure that the two-thirds vote requirement for tax hikes is enforced. Because most budget bills only need a majority vote, a lawsuit will quickly follow if the higher threshold is not met.

Our concern is that the governor has become so obsessed playing the “hide the tax” game that he hasn’t bothered to look at other alternative funding sources to solve this problem. If using a $6 billion surplus is off the table, there’s an option to tap into federal funding which is available for precisely this purpose. Or there are billions of dollars of unspent bond funds, including the recently voter-approved Propositions 1 and 84 that can be used to provide clean drinking water. Bond dollars are perhaps the best vehicle to provide major infrastructure improvements needed in the Central Valley. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

California’s Infrastructure Boondoggles Continue

High speed rail constructionEvery news story about the bullet train seems to be accompanied by a photo of workers building a viaduct in Fresno County.

This does nothing to dispel the impression that high-speed rail in California is actually a Marx Brothers movie.

Groucho: Over here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

Chico: Why a duck?

Groucho: I say that’s a viaduct.

Chico: All right, why a duck? Why a duck? Why not a chicken?

The latest news from the Marx Brothers is that the 119-mile Central Valley section currently under construction is $2.8 billion over budget.

That brings the estimated cost of the first phase to $10.6 billion and the cost of the entire project to at least $67 billion. Voters were told in 2008 that the high-speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles would be completed for $40 billion, but more than a quarter of that money is gone and it’s not out of Fresno yet.

The train may not be going anywhere, but the project’s chief executive moved on in June, shortly after promising that there was no truth to a leaked federal report warning that the train was on track for cost overruns of more than $2 billion.

The new CEO, at a salary of nearly $385,000, is Gov. Jerry Brown’s transportation secretary, Brian Kelly. He says part of his job will be to “restore credibility” to the high-speed rail project, which would be a startling break with tradition.

Part of the problem in the Central Valley, the rail authority now says, is that construction began before all the land was acquired. This decision, which HSR executives promised not to repeat, was made because federal funds would have been lost if a deadline for the start of construction was missed.

That turned the negotiations for land into a W.C. Fields movie, “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”

The federal deadline for starting construction was just one of many safeguards that were put in place to try to prevent the rail authority from wasting billions of dollars on a half-finished train to nowhere. Sadly, Gov. Jerry Brown and the HSR authority found ways around all of them.

Another questionable infrastructure proposal from the Brown administration, the so-called California WaterFix, is also running into budget difficulties.

The original plan called for spending $17 billion to construct two huge tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The idea was to get around the restrictions on pumping water from the delta to the Central Valley and Southern California, restrictions that have cut the flow of water in half since the 1980s.

The pumping restrictions resulted from lawsuits and settlements to protect declining populations of smelt and salmon, forcing another population — the people of California — to pay more for water, and for everything that’s produced with water, like food. Now billions will be spent to capture and clean up stormwater and groundwater, which wouldn’t be needed if California’s state and federal water projects hadn’t been shut down to protect the cast of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.”

Some water districts refused to pay for the twin-tunnel project, so the Brown administration may downsize California WaterFix to one tunnel. It would still cost billions of dollars, but proponents would like you to know that none of the money will come from taxpayers. The whole thing will be billed to water users.

Californians who want to save money should take W.C. Fields’ advice: Never drink water.

olumnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”

No More Excuses – Audit the High Speed Rail

Gov. Jerry Brown, Anne GustWith the revelation yesterday that the high-speed rail budget for the Central Valley segment jumped a whopping $2.8 billion there are no more excuses to prevent an independent audit of the rail project.

The cost for the Central Valley leg of the undertaking has jumped more than 75% from an original estimate of $6 billion to the newly revealed $10.6 billion. When voters approved state bonds to help build the venture, the total bond amount was actually under this new cost figure, less than $10 billion.

At the time of the bond vote in 2008, voters were told the entire bullet train project designed to run from San Francisco to Los Angeles was around $40 billion. That figure soon zoomed to almost $100 billion then settled back to around $64 billion.

What is the total cost to taxpayers now and how is the money being spent? An audit will tell us.

There have been previous audits of the system in 2010 and 2012. Both previous audits emphasized the risk involved in the high-speed rail undertaking.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno in November requested an emergency audit of the high-speed rail project. Al Murasutchi, Chair of the Legislative Audit Committee, rejected the emergency audit bid. Because the legislature was in recess at the time, committee chairs have the authority to request an emergency audit. Now that the legislature is back in session, Patterson intends to request an audit before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee on January 30th.

There are no excuses this time. The taxpayers have a right to know how this long delayed, cost overrun project stands. An audit of the high-speed rail must go forward.

ditor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Trump nominee threatens to shake up Central Valley water status quo

WaterAs a presidential candidate, Donald Trump’s promise to help Central Valley farmers get more water and to reduce environmentalists’ influence over the federal government got him a warm reception in rallies last May and August in the region that leads the way in feeding the nation and in powering California’s$54 billion agricultural industry.

As president, for a variety of reasons, Trump so far has only been able to providepart of the relief on water supplies that many in the Central Valley sought, even in the wake of a winter rain deluge. But Trump has signaled his intent to honor his promise to help the region by choosing David Bernhardt – a veteran of California’s water wars – for the No. 2 job in the Interior Department.

Bernhardt is a Colorado-based partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a multi-state law firm which has on four occasions represented the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, the largest U.S. irrigation district, in lawsuits targeting Interior Department policies. The law firm has been paid $1.3 million by the water agency since 2011.

Bernhardt’s Senate confirmation is expected this week or soon thereafter, but it may be close to a party-line vote. At a May 17 meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Bernhardt was grilled by ranking Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington and other Democrats over the conflicts of interest he would face because of his history representing Westlands and Cadiz, a Los Angeles land development firm that has fought with federal regulators over its audacious plan to access the water in a Mojave Desert aquifer.

Bernhardt: Effect on jobs should matter in regulatory decisions

At the hearing, Bernhardt repeatedly said he would avoid issues involving former clients unless given the blessing of Interior Department ethics lawyers. But Bernhardt’s remarks in answer to another question explain why he may be such a threat to the Central Valley’s water status quo.

When asked about his commitment to “scientific integrity” in enforcing Interior Department policies, Bernhardt said, “I will look at the science with all its significance and its warts. You look at that, you evaluate it and then you look at the legal decision you can make. In some instances the legal decision may allow you to consider other factors, such as jobs.”

This is music to the ears of many Californian Republicans, starting with Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. He has long contended that the Central Valley has suffered from a “man-made drought” because of bureaucratic decisions that interpret laws in ways that place the interests of  endangered fish such as the delta smelt over the needs of humans – despite no compelling legal obligation to do so.

The Obama administration rejected the contention, saying that its actions to use fresh water supplies to help sustain the delta smelt instead of helping Central Valley farmers followed laws requiring the federal government to protect endangered species and the ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Administration representatives said the decisions Nunes slammed as arbitrary were anything but.

Yet the highest-profile fight between Bernhardt’s law firm and Obama’s Interior Department wasn’t about the delta smelt or allegedly dubious bureaucratic maneuvering. It was over toxic substances in the irrigation water coming from Westlands’ 940 square-mile district. Despite criticism from environmentalists, the Obama administration agreed to a settlement on how the problem would be ameliorated that the Fresno Bee estimated could save the water agency more than $375 million. Greens who didn’t like the ruling couldn’t overcome the case that Bernhardt built that federal courts had consistently held that the federal government bore the burden for building drainage systems to limit the impact of the toxins.

Feds control 100 million acres of land in California

But Bernhardt’s confirmation would also insert him in other California water issues.

As a Sacramento Bee editorial noted, the deputy interior secretary historically has been “directly involved in virtually every aspect of California water, from the Colorado River agreement in the south to the Klamath River in the north, and, especially, the operations of the Central Valley Project.”

Given that the federal government owns or effectively controls 100 million acres of land in California – second only to Alaska in federal land holdings in the 50 states – this focus by the agency’s number two official is unsurprising.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Ways in Which a Trump Victory Could Benefit California

donald-trump-2On Jan. 20, when Donald Trump takes his hand off the Bible and picks up the phone, he could cause a near-seismic upheaval in California just by changing some federal rules and implementing new policies.

Let me break the news to you gently: it might work out well.

The federal government continuously writes stacks of regulations that cause consumers to pay more for everything than they otherwise would. But because of the length of time between the writing and the paying, it can be hard to recognize the cause and effect.

For example, your bill from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is higher because of federal regulations interpreted by California regulators to prohibit the use of ocean water for cooling power generation plants on the coast. We’re paying billions of dollars to convert three coastal generating plants, a project that began in 2011 and is scheduled to continue for decades. If the new administration modified those regulations, Los Angeles residents could save a small fortune.

If you’ve noticed that food is a lot more expensive, consider that because of federal regulations, the water supply was cut off to California’s breadbasket, the once-prosperous agricultural goldmine of the Central Valley.

Members of Congress from the area have introduced legislation over and over again to adjust federal law to override those regulations. Most recently, the Western Water and American Food Security Act was attached to the bill that funds the Interior Department. But President Obama has threatened a veto, arguing that the regulations are necessary to protect species like the Delta smelt.

The regulations could easily be changed if the new administration chooses to make abundant food production a policy priority over the protection of the smelt.

Other federal regulations have led to arguably impossible targets for further reducing fine particles, like dust and soot, in the air. To meet these goals, state regulators have repeatedly tightened the requirements for new diesel engines, raising the cost of trucking and the price of everything that’s moved by truck. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has even enforced California’s rules on out-of-state trucking firms when state regulators lacked jurisdiction.

Similarly, federal regulations have caused the South Coast Air Quality Management District to write up a new list of proposed tax increases to raise up to $14 billion. The bureaucrats need the money for policies and plans that are required in order to avoid federal sanctions for missing air-quality targets. But under a new administration, there’s an opportunity to take the bureaucracy off auto-pilot and look carefully at what we’re doing to ourselves. Some regulations may no longer be reasonable or necessary, and the cost may not be justified.

Federal rules that discourage the use of coal have made electricity more expensive, raising the cost of living for everyone. The next president’s policies could lower your utility bills.

Policy changes from the new administration will save taxpayers money in other ways, too.

A 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said California paid $1.1 billion in 2009 to incarcerate criminals who were in the country illegally. The cost to Los Angeles County that year was $139 million.

President-elect Trump was criticized by California’s legislative leaders for his plan to immediately deport up to 3 million criminals who are in the country illegally. Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon wrote in a joint letter, “We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.”

But what is the argument for not deporting convicted criminals who are in the country illegally? How does that shred the social fabric or the Constitution?

Maybe California politicians should start working now on how they’re going to explain to voters that they rejected federal funds that could have been used for education, transportation and health care because they wanted to protect criminals who are in the United States without legal authorization.

It’s long past time for California’s leaders to give some thought to the damage caused by policies that have gone unquestioned because their cost didn’t become clear until years later.

From housing to energy to transportation to health care to law enforcement to education, federal policies and regulations have consequences that are sometimes both unintended and disastrous. A new administration is an opportunity to take a fresh look at everything.

It might just work out well, even for California.

And here’s the punchline: By 2018, the state’s Democratic politicians will be taking credit for it.

Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.

This piece was originally published by the L.A. Daily News

High-speed rail’s first route segment will end in an almond orchard

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

The state’s plan to build an initial stretch of high-speed rail line, from San Jose to a map point in the midst of Central Valley farmland, came under renewed attack at an oversight hearing Monday.

Republicans on the House rail subcommittee had sought to hold the hearing in the Silicon Valley but ran into Democratic opposition, according to sources familiar with the matter. So the group convened around folding metal tables in a nondescript basement room in a San Francisco federal building.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the panel, chided the state for lacking a plan to complete the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train system.

“You could be stuck in a field somewhere between Shafter and Wasco … and … out of money,” Denham said.

The apparent absurdity of the abbreviated route was not lost on supporters. …

Click here to read the full story

On California Farms’ Water Issues, Congress Needs Food for Thought

Row crops growing in California.

When it comes to water and agriculture, California is upside-down.

That’s what historian Carey McWilliams wrote in his 1949 book, “California: The Great Exception.” Most of the water is in the northern part, and most of the best land for farming is further south.

But this “contrariness of nature” worked to humanity’s advantage in two ways, McWilliams wrote, because it stimulated inventiveness and technological achievement, and because “the long dry season is an enormous agricultural asset.”

That assumes you agree that abundant food production is a good thing, a view that in recent years has become unfashionable in places like Venezuela, Zimbabwe and San Francisco.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, described a stunning meeting he had with representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists in the summer of 2002 about the future of the San Joaquin Valley. “Their goal was to remove 1.3 million acres of farmland from production,” he said. “From Merced all the way down to Bakersfield, and on the entire west side of the Valley as well as part of the east side, productive agriculture would end, and the land would return to some ideal state of nature.”

That plan was moved forward when the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed by Congress in 1992. Under the law, 260 billion gallons of water on the Valley’s west side had to be diverted away from human uses and out to the environment.

Then a series of lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act secured protected status for smelt in 2008 and salmon in 2009, and that was enough to force the virtual shutdown of two major pumping stations that moved water to the Central Valley. Another lawsuit resulted in the San Joaquin River Settlement, later enacted by Congress at a cost of more than $1 billion to taxpayers, which diverted more water away from the Central Valley in an attempt to create salmon runs.

Farmers struggled to get by with groundwater, but in 2014, new California regulations limited that, too.

In 1949, McWilliams observed that if the Central Valley were a state, it would rank fifth in the nation for agricultural production. Today it has poverty and unemployment rates that would be right at home in the Great Depression.

And that’s why members of Congress from the region have repeatedly introduced legislation to adjust federal law in ways that would allow water to be restored to the Central Valley. The legislation passed the House several times only to die in the Senate.

Last year, Rep. David Valadao, R-Bakersfield, introduced it again, calling it the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. President Obama immediately threatened a veto, but in May, Valadao attached the bill as an amendment to an energy bill already passed by the Senate, and the House passed it. …

Click here to read the full story from the Daily News.