California water politics seep into GOP spending bill

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin River restoration would stop and Central Valley irrigation deliveries ostensibly rise under a Republican spending bill poised for House passage Thursday.

The controversial water provisions may not last long, as they confront serious Senate objections. The aqua-politics signal sent Californians, though, is clear: Get ready to rumble.

In particular, the water provisions intensify the clash between angry House Republicans and California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

"They're going to get hit every time there's a chance for them to get hit," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said Wednesday. "Now, they won't be hiding. Now, they've got to fight for their environmental wacko friends."

Nunes authored the California water provisions and succeeded in inserting them into a much-larger, 359-page spending bill. He also succeeded in provoking a fight.

"It's pure local politics, and presumably designed to make a statement in the Central Valley," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said of the measure. "But it is extremely short-sighted and would stop all progress on water deliveries."

The politics are, in fact, far from black and white. So are the potential real-world consequences, as some Valley farmers and federal irrigation authorities share worries about how the Nunes language would work in practice.

"We have a concern," noted Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, which serves 15,000 farms on the San Joaquin Valley's east side.

The water provisions were tucked into an overall bill called a "continuing resolution," which will fund the federal government for the remaining seven months of fiscal 2011.

GOP lawmakers tout the earmark-free measure as costing some $100 billion less than President Barack Obama had sought for the year. The package cuts funding for everything from agricultural research and border fencing to Head Start and public safety grants.

For instance, the overall budget package eliminates a $600 million Community Oriented Policing Services grant program. Last year, the program helped fund the hiring of six new Elk Grove police officers, five new Merced County sheriff's deputies and one new officer in the town of Reedley, among others.

"This is a continual movement forward of changing the whole scope and structure of government," Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield Republican who serves as House majority whip, told Fox News last weekend.

By placing the water provisions inside the continuing resolution, Nunes made it harder for his opponents, who would have had to push an amendment in a House where Republicans enjoy a 241-193 majority.

One provision blocks funding for work on restoring water and salmon to the San Joaquin River downstream from Friant Dam. The restoration project was negotiated to end an 18-year-old lawsuit. Another blocks funding for the so-called "biological opinions" that restrict irrigation pumping in order to protect salmon and the delta smelt.

"We're trying to turn the water back on," Nunes said.

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, countered in an interview that though "the language is just completely destructive to the negotiating process that's been going," the tactical decision was made to contest it in the Senate rather than the House. Feinstein has already announced her opposition.

"These are complex problems, and they require nuanced solutions," Feinstein said in a statement. "These broad-brush strokes do nothing to help us."

Jacobsma added that continued funding "is critical to successful completion" of the river restoration plans, and he cautioned that blocking the biological opinions could have perverse results. The biological opinions are required under the Endangered Species Act; if they are blocked, Jacobsma said, "the question is" whether pumping itself would have to stop.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service