California water bill approved by key panel

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2012 

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley farmers would secure more water and an ambitious river restoration plan would be curtailed under a far-reaching California bill approved by a key House panel Thursday night.

Opposed by the Brown administration in Sacramento and by the state's two senators, the water bill faces serious political turbulence. But following months of negotiations designed to ease Sacramento Valley concerns, bill supporters insist they're on the right course.

"Up and down the Valley, throughout the state, water districts have been able to come together," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater. "This bill restores water rights, so we can solve our economic problems, together."

After brushing off Democratic amendments, the GOP-controlled House Natural Resources Committee approved the measure.

Denham, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and chief author Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, bill their revised 51-page package as a way to improve farmers' water supply reliability.

The legislation returns federal irrigation contracts to 40 years, rather than the 25-year limit imposed in 1992. It eases water transfers, pre-empts strict state law and restores environmental standards set in 1994.

"It simply imposes the federal will on the state," said bill opponent Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove. "The bill adds to the conflict without solving the underlying problems, and that's unfortunate."

In a particularly controversial move, the bill ends a San Joaquin River restoration program and replaces it with a less ambitious plan. The current program designed to return both water and salmon below Friant Dam was authorized by Congress in 2009, putting into effect a lawsuit settlement reached between farmers and environmentalists.

"It's the biggest boondoggle in the history of California water," Nunes said of the current San Joaquin River program, calling his effort to replace it "the linchpin of this bill."

But curtailing the San Joaquin river restoration effort is also politically problematic. Friant-area farmers on the San Joaquin Valley's east side have supported the current program as preferable to letting a judge make water decisions.

Senate rules and traditions also give Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Senate's author of the original San Joaquin River restoration plan, considerable clout in blocking home-state bills. In a joint letter delivered Thursday, Feinstein and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer reiterated their "strong opposition" to the House bill they called "troubling."

"Unless we're willing to work with (Feinstein), the measure will never become law," stressed Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who voted for the bill even as he complained about a "disappointing" lack of bipartisan collaboration.

Adding to the political impediments, the Brown administration's top resources officer warned that the overall House bill "wreaks havoc" with ongoing efforts to balance water use.

"(The bill) continues to undermine California's ability to address its serious water challenges and will erase years of progress toward a collaborative solution," California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird stated in a letter sent Wednesday.

The most important differences negotiated since the bill was introduced last year deal with Sacramento Valley concerns about losing water to farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The revised bill adds several pages clarifying that the Sacramento Valley customers will get their water.

"The result is an unprecedented consensus … that resolves long-standing disputes between Northern and Central California," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, the chair of the House water and power subcommittee.

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