Who should get water deliveries divides California lawmakers

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 28, 2014 


A bicyclist rides in an area that was previously underwater at Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos, Calif., Jan. 8, 2014. The water level is very low due to the ongoing drought.

PATRICK TEHAN — Bay Area News Group/MCT

— Seasonal storms have exposed once more some perennial political divisions over California water.

Citing the latest rainfall, seven of the state’s lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to free up more irrigation deliveries for San Joaquin Valley farms. The muscular Capitol Hill lineup is noticeable both for who’s on it and who’s not.

In a telling alliance, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein joined with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and four other House Republicans, as well as one House Democrat, in calling for increased deliveries.

“Based on historical weather patterns, these storms could be our last chance this year to receive, capture, and move a sizable amount of water to those farms and communities that desperately need it for public health and safety and for their livelihoods that are under severe threat,” the lawmakers wrote Thursday.

Pointedly, they cited “a significant imbalance of regulatory burdens” in declaring that “there is clearly no imminent threat” to federally protected fish species.

Those not signing the letter to the Interior and Commerce departments were equally telling.

Neither Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer nor any of the House Democrats whose congressional districts include the vulnerable Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta joined the letter. The only Democrat who did, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, was one of the few Democrats to vote for a far-reaching California water bill approved by the Republican-controlled House several weeks ago.

Some environmental advocates cast the latest division in stark terms.

“Sen. Feinstein along with her Republican colleagues have decided to further mug our native species and water quality to serve up more subsidies and water to the mega farms on the West Side,” said Patricia Schifferle, owner of the firm Pacific Advocates.

Feinstein has occasionally angered environmentalists, as well some Northern California Democrats, with some of her previous water proposals on behalf of San Joaquin Valley farms. At the same time, she has also positioned herself as a potential deal-maker.

On Friday, Boxer sent her own letter to the administration, urging officials to “take all prudent and responsible measures within current regulation and law.”

“We cannot miss opportunities to provide some immediate relief during these rain events, but we must also ensure that we meet health and human safety requirements in our state,” Boxer wrote.

On March 12, Feinstein privately met in her Senate office with McCarthy, Costa and three other GOP lawmakers to hash out legislative ideas that might be represent a compromise between the House-passed bill and a competing Senate bill co-authored by her and Boxer.

The behind-the-scenes session lasted over an hour, letting the members, some of whom have had past conflicts, both spell out priorities and develop a working relationship. Feinstein had previously met one-on-one with freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the chief author of the House’s California water bill.

So far, the meeting participants are trying to keep a low profile as they pursue a potential deal.

In a more public arena, as chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Feinstein next Wednesday will be able to press the California water questions on the heads of the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10.

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