In an interview with Spectrum News, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., blasted California Gov. Gavin Newsom's water storage policies and accused him of driving half a million people out of the Golden State in the last two years.
"All his actions have been wrong," McCarthy said of Newsom, adding: "Just like they've been wrong in almost every single policy in this state."
McCarthy often says, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” and that’s certainly the case when it comes to the governor’s water policies in California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley.
Under the state’s environmental rules, much stormwater in the region flows out to sea, rather than being pumped into reservoirs to help ease the state’s drought concerns.
Those rules are intended to protect endangered species of fish and better preserve the ecology of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — which has the side-effect of reducing water exports to surrounding areas. More than 98% of the delta’s historic wetlands, along with about half of its freshwater inflow, have been lost according to the Public Policy Institue of California. Native species are in danger of extinction, including the delta smelt, which has reportedly declined in population by more than 90%.
McCarthy focuses on another 90% – the 90% of rainwater that he says California isn’t capturing.
“When we passed the bill, bipartisan ... the [Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act], with Dianne Feinstein and myself, we made investments in there to be able to store in a wet year like this," McCarthy told Spectrum News. "And now 90% of that water is going out to the ocean ... instead of storing it for California.”
In 2018, McCarthy and Feinstein worked to extend provisions of the 2016 WIIN Act, with the goal of directing some of the hundreds of millions of dollars for water storage and desalination projects toward California. They were able to attach language to a broad spending bill specifying that the money be used for projects transporting water from rainier climes in Northern California down to the state’s drier Central and Southern regions.
“He was the only person that fought us when we wanted to create more storage,” McCarthy said of Newsom. “He’s the only person who fought us when the federal government had a new biological opinon where more water could be pumped for the people of Southern California.”
In a statement to Spectrum News, a spokesperson for Newsom's office fired back at McCarthy, blasting the California Republican for opposing measures to fight California's drought, as well as President Joe Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes $210 million for drought resilience projects and an an $8.3 billion investment in Reclamation water infrastructure.
"Governor Newsom has taken aggressive measures to improve water conservation – committing an unprecedented $8.6 billion to build water resilience, fast-tracking conservation projects, bolstering groundwater recharge, and more," the spokesperson continued. "Just last week, Governor Newsom issued an Executive Order to conserve more water from recent storms. Thanks to the water captured and stored from recent storms, the state is increasing water deliveries to the highest level in years for local water suppliers that support two-thirds of California households."
Some experts say that, while there’s a limit to how much water aqueducts can carry (and how much water can be physically be pumped), California does a poor job of managing water supply in the area of the delta.
“I plan to continue to fight to make sure that we have water storage in California, and I’ll work with anyone — Republican or Democrat — that wants to be a part of that,” McCarthy told Spectrum News.
Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., also represents communities in the Central Valley. He told Spectrum News that he believes that there’s bipartisan potential to be found to deal with water issues.
“The water bills we introduced — Jim Costa, my friend just north of me, a Democrat, and myself Republican — we’ve introduced a lot of bills with a lot in common and I think there’s some common ground.”
But in an executive order signed last week, Newsom modified an earlier emergency order regarding drought conditions, with provisions specifically targeting the Central Valley delta.
According to the governor’s office, the order “helps expand the state’s capacity to capture storm runoff in wet years by facilitating groundwater recharge projects” and “allows the State Water Board to reevaluate requirements for reservoir releases and diversion limitations to maximize water supplies north and south of the Delta while protecting the environment.”
Note: This article has been updated to reflect a comment from Gov. Newsom's office.