WASHINGTON -- The House on Thursday approved a bill to boost San Francisco Bay Area water recycling, but only after lawmakers vented once more their unhappiness about San Joaquin Valley irrigation shortages.
The $32.2 million water recycling bill enjoys widespread support, on its own merits. It provoked, though, a broader and increasingly bitter debate in which one GOP lawmaker invoked the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's water policies.
Several San Joaquin Valley Democrats peeled off to join Republicans in opposition to the Bay Area measure, as the House approved the water recycling legislation by a largely party line 241-173 vote. The bill funds specific projects in Contra Costa County, Petaluma, Redwood City and Palo Alto.
"This is helpful," said bill author Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. "This will make a difference."
All told, the Bay Area projects assisted by the bill would generate 14,470 acre-feet of water annually. An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water used by a suburban family of four in a year. Miller and other bill supporters say this recycled water could help relieve demand on California's stressed water system.
The Bay Area bill is similar to five other water recycling bills approved without controversy earlier this year. But under pressure from Valley lawmakers, the Bay Area bill over the past three weeks became a battleground for both partisan and substantive disputes.
Farmers and their congressional allies largely blame the Valley's current water shortages on the Endangered Species Act, under which water is diverted to protect fish including salmon and the delta smelt found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
"Where there's no water, there's no jobs and no money," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
Costa and Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, joined Republicans led by Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia in trying to offer San Joaquin Valley amendments to the Bay Area water bill. In a potentially telling parliamentary maneuver, 23 House Democrats voted against the rule that blocked San Joaquin Valley amendments to the Bay Area bill. Democrats rarely vote against the rule, because that's considered to be a vote against their leadership.
The House Rules Committee had blocked the San Joaquin Valley amendments, dismissing them as being designed primarily for political advantage.
"They're very good at generating headlines and controversy," said Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The fact that the water recycling bill benefits the Bay Area and was authored by a key ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi further incited conservatives. Nunes on Thursday, for instance, cited the "left-wing radicals and fringe environmental movement" that he contends are at the heart of irrigation delivery reductions.
Iowa Republican Steve King, who visited the Fresno area in August, further likened California's environmental measures to the water distribution decisions made by Saddam Hussein, and then asserted that "we have a manmade drought in order to water more lawns in San Francisco."
Federal irrigation officials, though, stress that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumps are currently operating, contrary to the "turn the pumps on" rhetoric commonly heard during the debate.
"We know the drought, not the Endangered Species Act, is why so many people are suffering," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, who had hoped to offer San Joaquin Valley amendments Thursday, missed the debate because of a family medical emergency. His wife, Ethie, who is undergoing cancer treatment, was admitted to the hospital as her chemotherapy treatment is being adjusted, a Radanovich spokesman said.