Water Rights

Denham is desperate to stop a California water plan. Nothing has worked – yet

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with marina owner Darin Mills, right, at New Melones reservoir in July. Rep. Jeff Denham is at left and Rep. Tom McClintock is second right.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with marina owner Darin Mills, right, at New Melones reservoir in July. Rep. Jeff Denham is at left and Rep. Tom McClintock is second right. aalfaro@modbee.com

Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the nation’s most vulnerable Republicans, is trying desperately to shut down a state water plan that’s widely disliked in his district. But nothing has worked so far.

One thing could: Yet another lawsuit between the Department of Justice and the state of California over the issue.

Denham first tried to include a provision in a congressional budget bill in July that would prevent a federal reservoir, called New Melones, from using federal dollars to participate in the plan, which would direct greater amounts of water out of his district’s water resources and into the ocean, purportedly to help salmon populations.

The California Republican’s provision was successfully attached to a House bill, but blocked in the Senate version mainly by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

The final spending bill won’t be voted on until at least November, but is highly unlikely to include Denham’s provision.

All this matters politically because his district has a large number of farmers and agriculture workers who depend on water for their livelihoods.

Farm bureaus and other agriculture worker representatives have staunchly opposed the plan, known as the Bay Delta Plan, as it relates to the San Joaquin Valley, and water is one of the — if not the most — important issues in the district. The State Water Resources Board is expected to finalize part of the plan on November 7, unless water districts can come to a voluntary settlement with the board.

“The future of the Valley is at stake,” Denham said in a press release. “Sacramento’s water grab is the biggest threat we face, and it must be stopped at all costs.”

Denham is considered vulnerable because his district voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats have targeted his seat, seeing it as one of several key districts they believe will help them flip the House of Representatives in the upcoming election.

So Denham fights on. After it became clear his provision would fail to make it in the final bill, Denham drafted a letter to the White House asking officials there to intervene. The letter did not specify what constitutional authority the White House had to do so.

A spokesperson for the White House referred questions to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior.

The EPA directed questions to the Interior.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has visited the district with Denham and sent an internal memo on August 17 directing staff to come up with a “final recommendation for action” within 25 days. Wednesday, after 45 days have passed, Heather Swift, an Interior spokeswoman, didn’t offer any updates.

“The secretary is absolutely focused on finding a solution to this very complex problem,” Swift told McClatchy. “At the moment, the department is still working on it and internal deliberations are occurring.”

A letter the Interior Department sent to the water board in July likely has the answer.

In the letter Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation within the Interior Department, told the board that Interior had the authority to ensure water quality standards complied with congressional directives. If it found a federal reservoir was not operating within standards of congressional directives then it would turn to the Attorney General to bring action in court.

Denham has been working closely with Interior. A copy of the letter is available on Denham’s congressional website. He issued a press release the day after it was sent, but did not mention any threat to get the Attorney General involved.

Swift, the Interior spokeswoman, did not respond when questioned on the possibility of a lawsuit over the issue. The Department of Justice declined comment.

State Water Board officials declined to comment.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby