The U.S. Senate on Saturday passed a wide-ranging $10 billion deal to fund water and infrastructure projects around the country, including the removal of lead pipes in Flint, Michigan—but climate advocates say the long-awaited assistance comes at the cost of environmental protections in drought-stricken California.
If approved by President Barack Obama, the Water Resources Development Act would allot $170 million to address the ongoing lead poisoning crisis in Flint, a provision that Michigan lawmakers and activists say is long past due. However, it would also approve $558 million to send more water to California farmers, make it easier to build new dams in the state, and target certain fish species for elimination from waterways.
The California provision was tucked into the massive bill against the wishes of one of its primary authors, retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Despite having worked on it for years, Boxer found herself urging senators to vote against the massive bill, saying it puts the interests of big farmers over endangered species protections for salmon and other fish.
"It breaks my heart," she said during a floor speech on Friday. "Here I am, standing up, making a big fuss over my own bill, saying vote no. It's really painful for me to have to filibuster my own bill."
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As McClatchy notes, the provision would "dramatically [shift] 25 years of federal policy," and its "rocky road to the White House also proved a costly master class in political persistence and adroit maneuvering."
The waterways bill was approved in the U.S. House on Thursday. Its 78-21 passage in the Senate was greeted with mixed feelings from environmental activists.
"Federal funding to help begin fixing the pipes at the heart of the Flint water crisis is shamefully overdue," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "This is a start, but far more is needed to fix Flint and ensure safe drinking water to communities across America."
"We should not have to trade delinquent Congressional action in Michigan for the erosion of endangered species protection and a threat to fishing jobs in California, but that is the result of the partisan games at play in this bill," Slesinger said. "In spite of the poison pill rider gutting federal protections in California, we will redouble our efforts to protect the Bay-Delta."