California has a stake in a sprawling public lands package moving through the Senate, including controversial water provisions that don’t even name the state.
The package includes expanding one national historic site honoring famed conservationist John Muir and designating a new historic site at the former Tule Lake camp that housed Japanese-Americans during World War II. Both proposals easily won approval Wednesday from a Senate panel.
A Western water bill inevitably is proving far trickier, squeaking through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a 12-10 vote and facing an uncertain future.
“Western water issues are always difficult because scarce water is vital for so many competing purposes,” acknowledged Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the chair of the Senate committee, adding that “California, in particular, continues to grapple with its water issues.”
The word “California” only appears three times in the 142-page Western water bill approved Thursday along with 42 other public lands and resource measures now heading for the Senate floor. The water bill’s provisions, offered by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, potentially apply throughout the West.
Flake cited the “drought situation in the West, and in Arizona” in advocating his bill.
The language, though, also partially mirrors some found in ambitious California water legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and backed by the state’s entire Republican congressional delegation.
This legislation includes an extreme number of controversial provisions that are opposed by the administration...They are going to go nowhere, as far as our negotiations, and I don’t think they move us closer to solving our long-term water problems in the West. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Both House and Senate bills, for instance, would anoint the federal Bureau of Reclamation as the lead agency in coordinating work on new water storage projects. Supporters think this would be efficient; critics fear the subordination of environmental concerns raised by agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Both bills also streamline the Bureau of Reclamation’s processes for studying new water projects. Supporters complain of endless hurdles that have delayed proposed storage projects like Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River for years. Critics fear rushing crucial evaluations.
“We can’t solve water issues by starting a new round of water wars or by relying on old ways of doing business,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., adding that some of the water language was “veto bait.”
Cantwell is the senior Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and has by all accounts a good working relationship with Murkowski, the panel’s chair. Hinting at the possibility of future Western water negotiations, Cantwell acknowledged “these are issues that are not going away.”
The House, acting the day after the Senate committee, further pushed the water issue along by approving on a largely party-line 231-196 vote a $32.1 billion Interior Department and Forest Service funding bill that includes large portions of Valadao’s California water bill.
The Obama administration has threatened a presidential veto of the Interior bill, whose provisions include stopping funding for an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program and authorizing the “operational flexibility” that would direct more water to San Joaquin Valley farms.
“Regardless of attempts made by Democrats to evade addressing our water crisis . . . I will continue to pursue every single legislative avenue available until my constituents have the water they so desperately need,” Valadao said in a statement following the House vote.
In contrast to the partisanship infecting California water issues, the modest public lands bills approved by the Senate committee Thursday incited lower-key debate.
Liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and conservative Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California, for instance, have introduced bills to designate the former Tule Lake Segregation Center in remote Modoc County as a national historic site.
Tule Lake was the largest of 10 camps run by the War Relocation Authority following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9066, and at its peak housed 18,700 Japanese-Americans.
Boxer’s version of the Tule Lake bill differs in some respects from LaMalfa’s but it still won voice-vote approval from the Republican-controlled Senate committee Wednesday, as did a bill by Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., to add 44 acres to the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez.
Muir, famed for his role in establishing Yosemite National Park, lived in the Martinez home from 1890 to his death in 1914.