Losing McCarthy and Feinstein is a double-barreled blow for California’s water clout

December 12, 2023
by Lois Henry
Congressman Kevin McCarthy at a ceremony marking completion of the Isabella Dam safety project in April 2023. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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Kevin McCarthy’s chaotic exit from Congress on top of the death of Senator Dianne Feinstein has left California’s water world – and particularly the San Joaquin Valley –  in somewhat of a representational void at the federal level.

Both politicians brought a lot of firepower in their respective leadership positions as well as wealth of knowledge of the complexities of this state’s water needs, politics and pitfalls.

Yes, there are other electeds well-versed in water, including Fresno’s Jim Costa and Vallejo’s John Garamendi. But both are in the minority party – at the moment – and neither hold leadership positions that can move legislation along, according to water managers.

“It’s a big loss to California water,” said Jeevan Muhar, General Manager of Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, which relies on water through the federal Central Valley Project system that brings water south from Millerton Lake north of Fresno in the Friant-Kern Canal. “And locally, for Kern County, it will leave a vacuum on the federal side. But Kevin also wasn’t afraid to get involved on the state side of things as well.”

Water managers listed fixes to the Isabella and Schaefer dams as well as passage of the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation (WIIN) Act in 2016 as three major accomplishments McCarthy got done for California water.

Without McCarthy pushing for funding and to speed up timelines, neither dam fix would have been done by now, observers said.

“Back in 2006, we were told by the Army Corps of Engineers it would take 20 years for the design and environmental phases alone and then another 10 years to get it built,” recalled retired Kern River Water Master Mark Mulkay. “McCarthy was just starting out in Congress and he really jumped in to get things going, make sure they got the funding and kept it on the front burner.”

Fixes to Isabella, which included raising both the main and auxiliary dams by 16 feet, construction of a new labyrinth weir and emergency spillway and improvements to the dam’s filtering and drainage systems, were completed in October 2022 just before this year’s epic snowfall.

“If it hadn’t been completed this year, we would have lost several hundred thousand acre feet to Tulare Lake and the (California) Aqueduct because we wouldn’t have been able to manage the timing of those releases,” Mulkay said. “Having Isabella completed ahead of the original schedule was a huge benefit for everyone and it had a lot to do with (McCarthy’s) perseverance.”

Similarly, in Tulare County, the Schaefer Dam at Lake Success got a “heavy lift” from McCarthy, said Dan Vink, a water consultant and former General Manager of the Lower Tule River and Pixley irrigation districts.

“We had a groundbreaking in 2003,” Vink recalled of the enlargement project. “Then it all got put on hold for dam safety concerns and we found ourselves in 2017 and the project had lost focus.”

McCarthy stepped in and found funding through a disaster relief bill that included some money for flood protection.

“I know he made a lot of calls personally on this issue,” Vink said. “By virtue of his leadership, the administration included the Success project (in the disaster relief bill) and it got funding.”

That project is still ongoing. When completed next year, it will enlarge the lake’s capacity from 82,000 to 110,000 acre feet.

Had the project been completed before this year, it may have mitigated the damage from flooding on the Tule River, Vink said.

The massive WIIN Act would never have come to pass without both Feinstein and McCarthy, according to Tom Birmingham, former General Manager of the Westlands Water District in Fresno county. Birmingham called it “the most meaningful water policy legislation related to California that was enacted in last 30 years.”

One of the key features of the WIIN act is that it allowed Central Valley Project federal contractors to convert their 25-year term contracts, to permanent contracts. That’s common among federal contractors once a project is deemed complete, but despite decades of operation, the Central Valley Project never obtained that designation.

The WIIN Act allowed contract conversions – once contractors paid off their share of the project’s capital costs – despite it not being deemed complete.

Those contract conversions were extremely controversial, requiring a lot of political maneuvering to move the WIIN Act forward, Birmingham and Vink agreed.

“Without Feinstein’s and McCarthy’s tenacity and ability to bring people together it wouldn’t have happened,” Birmingham said.

For environmental groups, the WIIN Act was not Feinstein’s best moment. But she had a good environmental record in other areas, said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, with Restore the Delta. She was thoughtful and “understood that this region needs protection,” Barrigan-Parrilla said

As for McCarthy, he will not be missed, she said.

“He was entirely about exporting water from the (Sacramento-San Joaquin) delta,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “There was no concern for the environment, no meeting of the minds, no willingness from that end of the valley to consider climate change or other issues in California.

“For me, his leaving is a good thing.”

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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