New water panel chairman wants more California projects built

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, could start making waves in California water.

As new chairman of the House water and power subcommittee, McClintock can promote his pet projects while he squeezes environmentalists. Politically, this means renewed talk of an Auburn dam, stricter scrutiny of San Joaquin River restoration and more support for hydropower.

"We need to change the central objective of our federal water and power policy, to one of abundance," McClintock said in an interview. "That means building more water projects."

In theory, McClintock's position strengthens the staunch conservative's ability to pursue his agenda. The House panel writes water legislation. It oversees spending by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates California's Central Valley Project. It holds administration officials' feet to the fire.

In practice, McClintock's ability to convert stature into action remains an open question.

The subcommittee's other members have not yet been named, including the key position of senior Democrat. The subcommittee's staff is still being formed. McClintock said Thursday that his specific legislative agenda will be made clear over time.

McClintock has yet to show how he handles the chairman's reins. Though he's an experienced politician, first winning election to the California Assembly in 1982, persistent minority party status means the 54-year-old McClintock has never chaired a legislative panel.

"This is my 25th year as a legislator," McClintock noted, "and it's my very first week to be in the majority."

One reality check could arise over potential revival of an Auburn dam.

The long-debated proposal for a dam on the American River seemed to formally die two years ago, when the state water board revoked rights for the project estimated to cost upward of $10 billion. McClintock, though, insists the dam could live again given the proper cost-benefit analysis.

"Ultimately, it will be constructed," McClintock said. "The only question is if it's built in time to prevent the (Sacramento flooding) calamity."

Skeptics abound, including those who wonder how much time and energy need be spent on a political long shot.

"We have to talk about that," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento. "We have so many other challenges facing us."

As the panel's ranking Republican last Congress, McClintock could chastise Democrats without having the responsibility for negotiating compromises or passing complicated bills.

McClintock denounced a San Joaquin River restoration bill as part of a "massive land grab." He blamed the Obama administration for creating a "man-made drought" in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, and he blasted the Bureau of Reclamation for focusing on water recycling and environmental protection instead of dam building.

"I fear that this agency is becoming a pawn of the environmental left and its crusade to crush the economy of rural America through the Endangered Species Act," McClintock declared at one March 2009 hearing.

Now under Republican control, the House Natural Resource Committee visually displays its revamped priorities through its website. The committee's lead picture shows hard-hatted workers at an energy project. A dam illustrates McClintock's subcommittee.

"Anybody who takes over a chairmanship has to decide early on if they want to be a problem solver or if they are more interested in scoring political points," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a resources panel member who added that McClintock "has the potential to be constructive."

McClintock said he'll use his subcommittee chairmanship to target "superannuated and antiquated programs that can be eliminated." He did not identify examples, though he has repeatedly criticized water recycling efforts like one he says benefits San Francisco's "pampered and privileged residents."

McClintock said he'll conduct oversight hearings, suggesting that San Joaquin River and Klamath River restoration projects might be ripe targets.

McClintock further suggested that a "captive breeding program" might quickly build up the population of the Delta smelt fish so that farmers could receive more irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

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