Florez bill fights for water rights

The ongoing battle over San Joaquin River water has reached the legislative arena thanks to an unlikely source.

State Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) has introduced legislation aimed at not only creating legislative debate on crucial San Joaquin River questions but creating greater state protection for the ultimate users of federal Central Valley Project water.

The bill proposes that use of Central Valley Project water "shall not be interrupted if it is applied to reasonable and beneficial use pursuant to a contract between a person or public agency and the federal government."

Florez introduced SB 21 on Dec. 6 as his first bill of the new legislative session to help recognize the importance of the San Joaquin River's development based on federal and state promises of water. It would require that there be consideration given to jobs, the economy and community impacts if San Joaquin River water supplies were reduced within the Friant Division - all things that a violation of the Endangered Species Act would not take into account.

The move was a surprising one from Florez who normally champions the cause of Central Valley environmentalism. In the most recent legislative session, Florez focused his energies on the Valley's air pollution crisis, taking on powerful interests along the way. In the end, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law five measures by Florez. Foremost among those measures was SB 700, which ended agriculture's reign as the only industry in California exempted from the Federal Clean Air Act. The bills also phased out the age-old practice of burning agricultural waste. He also served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Air Quality in the Central Valley, which addresses the various causes of Valley air pollution, including large commercial developments and diesel-driven locomotives.

Florez made clear during a Capitol news conference that his legislation was motivated by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton's August ruling making the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation liable for violating state law in connection with impacts on the river and fishery created by Friant Dam's construction 60 years ago. Given the possibility that Karlton's "remedy" decision could ultimately send water long used beneficially by Friant Water Authority members - municipalities, communities and farmers - down the river.

"I don't think there could be anything more devastating," Florez told Waterline, a publication of the FWA. He said the decision's potential impacts, far from being limited to the Valley, "have statewide ramifications. People affected by decisions should have a say in it." He and other speakers argued that Karlton is attempting to legislate from the bench. "This debate belongs in the Legislature. This is a debate that truly needs to occur."

Environmental interests were quick to object to the bill and argue that it would harm the environment.

SB 21

The bill as framed has two basic priorities:

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