Politics & Government

California's drought brings House panel to Fresno

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers, not rainmakers, will be descending Monday upon Fresno for a congressional hearing into the drought that now grips California.

The hearing will spotlight some familiar ideas, like building new reservoirs and passing a big water bond package. Incrementally, it might help build political momentum. Legislatively, many obstacles remain.

Still, farmers will take what they can get.

"I think the important thing here is to continue to bring attention to the plight of Central California, and all of California," Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, said Friday.

Jacobsma represents farmers on the San Joaquin Valley's east side, who receive irrigation water via Friant Dam. Already a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, where he regularly lobbies and testifies, Jacobsma is one of 14 witnesses currently scheduled to appear.

There will be some witnesses making their congressional debut, including a Fresno-area farm worker named Carlos Ramirez. Others are politically experienced leaders of well-known entities ranging from the Westlands Water District to the state Department of Water Resources.

Witnesses, for instance, will champion the need for additional water storage projects like the controversial proposal for a Temperance Flat dam on the Upper San Joaquin River. Witnesses will also echo Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's recently articulated support for a $9.3 billion bond measure that would help finance new water and environmental projects.

"California is facing an unprecedented water crisis," Feinstein declared last week, foreshadowing what House members are likely to say Monday. "We need to prepare now for the future."

With water, especially, preparations can take a long time. Feinstein, for instance, first introduced in December 2006 an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration bill that still awaits House and Senate action.

The San Joaquin Valley's congressional delegation sought the latest hearing, set for 10 a.m. at Fresno City Hall. Even some of the Valley members who aren't part of the House water and power subcommittee will be attending -- a reflection of the importance the region places on water supply.

An oversight hearing like this does not directly produce legislation; there will be no votes cast and no dollars provided. It's akin to the subcommittee's other recent oversight hearings, informing lawmakers on topics like invasive mussels, the role of hydropower and Indian water rights.

But the Fresno hearing is also the second subcommittee session targeting California's water woes this year, and some hope to see tangible action soon.

"To the extent Congress can play a role, the place to start is with the subcommittee," Jacobsma said.

It may help that four California House members, including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, dominate the eight-member panel. The chair, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, is assisted by a staff director, Steve Lanich, who has worked on California water issues for many years.

In 1992 -- before any of the Valley's current House members were in Congress -- Lanich helped craft the Central Valley Project Improvement Act that steered more of the region's water to environmental protection.