WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have quietly begun laying groundwork for a California water bill that could pass the Senate and become law.
If it happens, it will be less ambitious than one passed recently by the Republican-controlled House. It's likely to avoid dramatically rewriting a San Joaquin River restoration plan. And, it's going to demand some give-and-take from all sides.
"I think we have to be able to work across the aisle to help the San Joaquin Valley," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Calif., said in an interview, "and we also have to be able to work across both houses (of Congress.)"
In recent days, Denham met with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in her Senate office to discuss the California water legislation and other common concerns. Significantly, there will be more meetings to come.
Following next week's congressional recess, Denham said he will privately be convening again with Feinstein along with Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater. Costa and Cardoza were among a handful of Democrats to vote for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act on Feb. 29.
The bill would lengthen irrigation contracts to 40 years, rather than the 25 years currently in place. It would override state law, would increase deliveries to farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and would significantly revise a San Joaquin River restoration plan.
Even as they voted for the controversial House water bill, Costa and Cardoza had stressed the need to collaborate with Feinstein in order to make long-term progress.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to reach some level of consensus on how we can move forward," Costa said.
Two House members who aren't scheduled to join the Feinstein meeting are the bill's chief House author, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and the chairman of the House water and power subcommittee, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove.
Nunes has not endeared himself to Feinstein, as he has regularly denounced her for being allied with those he calls "radical environmentalists" and members of the "hippie generation." Last year, he sponsored ads attacking her alleged "hypocrisy" on water issues.
"We have to work together," Feinstein said, "but it's difficult when you're being trashed."
Nunes, in turn, stresses that he has other, conservative allies in the Senate with whom he can work.
McClintock has not talked to Feinstein about water legislation in the year that he has led the House water and power panel, the senator said, but the congressman's press secretary Jennifer Cressy, said in an e-mail that McClintock "respects the independent role of the Senate."
"Congressman McClintock is looking forward to participating in the conference process once the Senate has acted," Cressy said.
The House bill's provision to change San Joaquin River restoration plans appears to face the stiffest Senate opposition. Feinstein championed the current plan, which calls for enough water to flow down the river channel below Friant Dam to support salmon. The House bill calls for far less water, to support fish species other than salmon.
Although it's provoking more skepticism over its cost and feasibility, the current salmon-restoration plan also is part of a court settlement that could be difficult to unravel unless environmentalists agree
"That's a non-starter," Costa said of the House provision.
Other House provisions, Costa suggested, could prove much more palatable.
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