California water bill now flows to uncertain future in Senate

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2012 

WASHINGTON — A big California water bill passed by the House this week might be brilliant political hardball that puts Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the spot.

Or, maybe it's a blown opportunity that's poisoned the well. Perhaps, it's a little bit of both. Like it or not, the state's water future could be hanging in this uncertain balance.

"The question is, has the bill created so much distrust and chaos that the process of solving the problem has been set back?" said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.

A former top Interior Department official, Garamendi contends the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act approved by the House on Wednesday "creates a huge disruption" that will complicate the search for long-term California solutions.

Certainly, relationships are frayed, tempers are short and trust appears to be diminished. Just listen to a bit of the sometimes-brittle House debate.

"Perhaps (Garamendi) was not listening," Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said at one point, adding "apparently, he has a short memory."

"First of all, if the gentleman would listen carefully," Garamendi began his retort.

McClintock leads the House water and power subcommittee, and oversaw negotiations from which Democrats say they were excluded. His press secretary, Jennifer Cressy, replied Friday that the extensively vetted bill was based on "consultations and negotiations with more than 60 water agencies throughout northern and central California — including many in Democratic congressional districts."

The water bill's authors, having secured House passage by a largely party line 246-175 margin, now insist they are on a roll.

"We're going to figure out what our options are, how to bring the bill up on the Senate floor," said the bill's chief author, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

The bill would would lengthen 25-year water contracts to 40 years, preempt strict state environmental laws and steer more water to farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Carefully negotiated language is designed to reassure Sacramento Valley farmers they won't lose supplies as a result.

The bill also would end an ambitious plan to restore salmon to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, replacing it with a more modest proposal for other fish species.

Supporters call the bill a way to save farms and turn water to better use. As Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, put it, the legislation will "put people to work." Opponents call it a water grab by south-of-Delta farmers.

"I can tell you that both the city and county of Sacramento strongly oppose this bill," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.

Several Capitol Hill scenarios now arise, each a case study in practical politics and the power of the Senate.

Although both Feinstein and her Democratic colleague Barbara Boxer have a say and oppose the bill, Feinstein is key. She has allies not just among environmentalists but also among the state's biggest farmers, including potential beneficiaries of the House bill.

In January, for instance, owners of Kern County agricultural giant Paramount Farms hosted a fundraiser for Feinstein in Visalia, Calif. Paramount Farms is a vocal supporter of the House bill.

The textbook scenario is that California's senators offer an alternative bill, leading to a straight-up conference between House and Senate negotiators. That seems unlikely.

"It's a very selfish bill," Feinstein said of the House effort in an interview. "It says the farmers get the water, and everybody else be damned."

Feinstein, moreover, denounces Nunes' characterizations of her. Nunes has run ads that say Feinstein "defines hypocrisy," and in interviews he has called her a "liar" whose staffers are "radicals" aligned with "radical environmentalists" and the "hippie generation."

"In all my life, I've never been exposed to this kind of behavior," Feinstein said. "It says to me he doesn't want to work with me."

Nunes replied that he has been perfectly capable of working with Feinstein, including on matters involving their memberships on the congressional intelligence committees.

Cressy added that McClintock "expects senators Feinstein and Boxer to provide the same leadership in the Senate" as she says was provided in the House.

Another scenario is that the California water legislation slides into a broader bill. Authors of the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act used this tactic, by including the measure disliked by California farmers into a politically unassailable package containing some 39 other Western provisions.

"We will continue to look for legislation to attach this to," Nunes said. "I'm not going away."

A third scenario is that Feinstein uses her chairmanship of the Senate energy and water appropriations panel to include a few select California water provisions in a must-pass funding bill. She did so late last year, with a few sentences easing water transfers inserted into a 1,221-page spending bill.

This scenario would lack the public drama, and it might not satisfy either Nunes or environmentalists, but by some political calculations it could be the most likely outcome.

"I'm not adverse to putting something in energy and water," Feinstein said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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