Administration, California lawmakers battle over water projects

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley lawmakers and the Obama administration's top irrigation official clashed Thursday over proposals to speed up Valley water projects.

Valley lawmakers want stimulus funds to build fish screens and other facilities that boost irrigation deliveries. They also want taxpayers and not local farmers to pay the bill for helping the drought-ridden region.

"This is a devastating situation for my part of the world," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, told a House subcommittee. "We have to take every possible step we can."

Legislation authored by Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, would redirect some of the $787 billion economic stimulus package approved last February to California water projects. The new federal funds, whose exact amount is not specified, would replace the standard cost-share requirement typically imposed on local water districts that benefit from federal projects.

For instance, Merced Irrigation District General Manager John Sweigard suggested Thursday that the bill would make it possible to proceed with new pipelines that move water from one part of the Valley to another. The region's small family farmers could not easily meet a local cost-share requirement, Sweigard said.

"The bill will provide additional water supplies," Sweigard told the House water and power subcommittee.

California Department of Fish and Game Director John McCamman added other projects that could proceed if the standard cost-share requirement were waived. In the short term, these include fish screens near Yuba City and Natomas, north of Sacramento. Longer term, these include an $800,000 proposal for screening portions of the Merced River.

"This is not a silver bullet," Costa said, but "we need to give the Bureau of Reclamation the flexibility they need to solve problems."

The Obama administration and taxpayer advocacy groups, though, are warning about the bill's cost as well as possible unintended consequences. They note that the vast majority of federal irrigation facilities throughout 17 Western states include a local cost-share requirement.

"It's important to retain the commitment of non-federal investment," Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor said, further citing the virtues of "fiscal restraint and economic self-sufficiency."

Taxpayers for Common Sense, joined by the National Wildlife Federation, added in a statement that "this legislation could be enormously costly and open the door to ill-advised and environmentally destructive water projects."

Connor also warned that stripping away the cost-sharing requirements "may result in fewer overall projects being funded" as claims are placed on Bureau of Reclamation funds.

As legislation, the bill's prospects are entirely uncertain. Costa and Cardoza are currently the only two House supporters of the bill introduced in December, and a comparable measure has not been introduced in the Senate. The two Valley Democrats missed much of the hearing Thursday because they were meeting privately with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to discuss water issues.

As signal-sending, though, the bill comes amid increasingly partisan political tensions.

Republican Rep. Devin Devin Nunes of Visalia used his time Thursday to denounce "the reckless inaction" of House Democrats, while the panel's senior Republican, Rep. Tom McClintock of Granite Bay, melodramatically proclaimed "turn on these pumps." Costa, in turn, retorted that "I don't need to be lectured" about the Valley's water woes by McClintock, who represented Southern California in the state Legislature for 22 years before he relocated to run for an open congressional district several hundred miles to the north.