Feinstein’s anti-drought bill may face rough waters in House

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 21, 2014 

— Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s newly finished California water bill that’s designed for quick Senate approval gratifies some farmers while alienating some fishermen, tribes and environmentalists.

The California Democrat is pushing for the revised 16-page bill to pass the Senate as soon as possible, perhaps by Friday, setting up a delicate round of deal-making with Republican-led House negotiators. Right now, though, this remains a machine with many moving parts.

“This is meant to be a modest bill...to be able to work something out that can pass both houses,” Feinstein said Wednesday. “We need to have a vehicle.”

Feinstein indicated Wednesday she has the support of all Democratic senators, who are willing to let the bill slide through under a unanimous consent procedure called “the hotline.” Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is trying to win similar consent from the 44 other Senate Republicans.

It’s possible that GOP senators may demand a change or two before letting the package pass.

Farmers like those with the Western Growers Association, who met with Feinstein on Wednesday morning, welcome legislation that delivers more irrigation water. In a private meeting Monday, House Republican staffers tried to convince counterparts with the GOP’s 22-member Senate Western Caucus that the bill should move ahead so that a final version can be negotiated.

But environmentalists, and Northern California Democrats whose House districts include the vulnerable Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, fear Feinstein has already gone too far.

“Fresh water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers feed the health of the West Coast’s largest estuary,” said Patricia Schifferle, who runs the firm, Pacific Advocates. “Excessive diversions of this water harm not only the ecology, but drinking water and farming.”

More broadly, skeptics fear the results of a House and Senate negotiation, which they believe will be tilted against their interests.

“I don’t think there’s a reason for a bill,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said Wednesday, adding that a House and Senate conference will “make a bad bill worse.”

House leaders of the California water bill effort, like Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., have pushed for more ambitious legislation, and will likely insist on more changes to their liking.

Now dubbed the Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014, Feinstein’s latest bill reflects changes negotiated since she and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., first introduced an anti-drought measure on Feb. 11.

The original bill, for instance, reauthorized the Delta environmental restoration program called CALFED. That’s been dropped. The bill no longer authorizes several hundred million dollars in drought relief. One bill version explicitly directed funding to expanding the capacity of Nevada’s Lake Mead, in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That language has been softened, somewhat.

In other ways, the latest version would put into law steps the Obama administration has already taken on its own.

The Senate bill, for instance, declares that for every acre-foot of additional San Joaquin River water flowing into the Delta from transfers or exchanges, an acre-foot must be exported for use south of the Delta. An acre-foot is a unit of volume used to measure large quantities of water.

The Senate bill also specifies that the Delta’s “Cross Channel gates” remain open as much as possible. Closing the gates protects migrating salmon; opening them can facilitate water deliveries.

Both measures are already in effect administratively. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, among others, has contended that legislation locking in the Delta export ratio could harm juvenile salmon in future years if drought declarations remain in effect, despite higher precipitation.

Neither the 68-page House version of a California water bill passed in February, nor the subsequent versions of the Senate bill, were subject to a congressional hearing. This prompted skeptics like Schifferle to charge that the legislation is being crafted behind closed doors to help special interests.

Feinstein retorted Wednesday that the criticisms are “simply not true.”

“We haven’t given away the house,” Feinstein said. “We have to operate the system with more flexibility to be able to provide the water.”

The upcoming House and Senate negotiating conference, whenever it happens, will include consideration of House proposals that include replacing an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program with something smaller. The House bill also includes authorizations for several water storage projects, which Feinstein said Wednesday was something she’s willing to consider.

“You have to be able to collect and hold water,” Feinstein said.

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

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