The year’s first congressional hearing on California’s water crisis incited stern voices and familiar feuds Wednesday, but showed no sign of legislative progress.
Instead, for two hours, lawmakers largely remained in trenches dug over many years as they lobbed shells at one another and, at times, the assembled witnesses.
“It seems we’re so close to a solution today,” sarcastically mused Rep. John Fleming, R-Louisiana, the chair of the House water, power and oceans subcommittee.
In theory, the hearing on California’s water supply might have illuminated the state’s hydrological state of affairs and how it might be improved. The expert witnesses ranged from the general managers of the Westlands Water District and Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District to the Bureau of Reclamation’s regional director and the secretary of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
Their written testimony was, in fact, highly detailed and informative.
These conditions have taken their toll on water users, the environment, the economy and communities across the state.”
David Murillo, Mid-Pacific Regional Director, Bureau of Reclamation.
The testimony, for instance, recounted that 2014 and 2015 were the warmest on record in California and that last April the Sierra Nevada’s snow pack was only 5 percent of average. As of Jan. 19, just before the El Niño storms hit the state, water storage in major federal reservoirs was 963,000 acre-feet less than the same time last year.
“It has been drought, far more than any other factor, that has constrained the ability of the state and federal projects to deliver full allocations of water,” said David Murillo, regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region.
Westlands’ general manager, Tom Birmingham, cited records showing the federal Central Valley Project has been pumping “significantly less” water this year despite El Niño, and Glenn-Colusa’s general manager Thaddeus Bettner noted shortcomings in how salmon populations are monitored.
But for much of the hearing, old plot lines and ancient political practices prevailed over crucial fact-finding. One panel member, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, used four minutes and fifty seconds of his five-minute question period to read a prepared speech, looking up occasionally.
Another lawmaker took time to play a video clip of President John F. Kennedy dedicating San Luis Reservoir in 1962. One complained about that the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act diverted too much water from farmers, while a witness detailed how Marin County coped with a 1977 drought.
Occasionally, the House members made time to take umbrage.
“I listened very carefully and politely while you misstated the facts,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, told Birmingham at one point. “Now, you get to listen.”
Birmingham, in turn, called one of Huffman’s past statements “absolutely false,” while Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, declared that Huffman had been “disrespectful to the people of Porterville” and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, likewise asserted some members had “villainized” San Joaquin Valley residents.
“Would the gentleman yield for a correction?” Huffman asked Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove at one point.
“No. Mr. Huffman, I respected your time,” McClintock replied. “I would ask that you respect mine.”
“You don’t have to yield,” Huffman countered.
The California lawmakers are battling over water legislation that has remained stalled for several years. House Republicans, joined by Costa, have pushed the most ambitious proposals that include additional pumping of water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Adding a new twist, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, revealed this week his plans to introduce a companion measure to one by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Garamendi described his bill as an effort “to restart the conversation in Washington about finding a solution that works for everyone.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect party affiliation for Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael. He is a Democrat.