Senate panel approves water bill with provisions for California farmers

McClatchy NewspapersApril 24, 2012 

— The Interior Department would prepare new plans to boost water deliveries and storage in California’s Central Valley, potentially under streamlined environmental reviews, under a funding bill approved by a key Senate panel Tuesday.

A six-month study, to be updated annually, would examine myriad ways to increase the amount of water that farmers in the region between Chico and Bakersfield get from the federal Central Valley Project. Separately, the Senate bill calls for expeditious completion of feasibility and environmental studies for potential new reservoirs.

The provisions, along with others targeting California, are included in a $33.3 billion energy and water spending bill that may carry special significance this year. With lawmakers from both parties voicing concern about California’s water needs, the annual appropriations measure could become the likeliest train going down the track.

“I think it addresses the water infrastructure … challenges facing the nation,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The California water provisions set to be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday stop well short of what the Republican-controlled House passed earlier this year as part of a separate legislative effort. Unlike the House bill, the Senate energy and water package leaves a San Joaquin River restoration plan intact, keeps irrigation contracts the way they are and abides by existing state and federal environmental laws.

Other, more aggressive measures could always pop up later. For now, though, Feinstein has used her chairmanship of the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee to move discretely rather than dramatically.

“Overall, I believe we have developed a well-balanced and responsible bill,” Feinstein said.

Some disagree.

On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama objected to how the Senate bill redirects harbor maintenance funds for the Army Corps of Engineers. Currently, some busy West Coast ports including Los Angeles and Long Beach generate a lot of the fees that go into the harbor maintenance fund; under the Senate bill, these regions that produce more fees would receive more back in harbor maintenance aid.

“The biggest winner, by far, would be California,” Shelby noted, promising a fight if the proposed new policy isn’t revised.

However it looks in the end, the Fiscal 2013 energy and water spending bill is must-pass legislation because it helps keep the federal government operating. By contrast, a House bill chiefly authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Calif., covers more ground but is strictly optional. Tactically, this means a key question has been what House provisions might get folded into the energy and water bills, or other bills that have unstoppable momentum.

“If they don’t like the bill, present us your own,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Calif., urged the Senate during House debate, “but don’t just ignore Valley farmers.”

The House’s California water bill would replace an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program with something much smaller. The House bill calls for about 100,000 acre-feet of water to flow below the dam annually, less than half of what the current law demands; the result would be hospitable for some fish species, but not salmon.

Feinstein led the way for the original San Joaquin River restoration plan and has made clear she isn’t interested in rewriting it unless farmers and environmentalists agree on making changes.

The House bill also would return federal irrigation contracts to 40 years, rather than the 25-year limit imposed in 1992, and it specifically preempts state laws that might impinge on increased irrigation deliveries.

Kettleman City, in western Kings County, California, catches a break with special language in both bills designed to encourage water deliveries that would make up for the area’s contaminated groundwater.

The Senate bill includes language meant to expedite water transfers, and it orders a study of potential forest management practices in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that might increase water yield.

Mostly, though, the Senate bill approved with minimal debate provides money, including $36 million for restoration of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This is a $4 million decrease from 2012.

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