Boxer, Feinstein in angry split over new California water-bill plan

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is vowing to stop a California water measure from becoming law. Boxer’s stance pits her against fellow California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is vowing to stop a California water measure from becoming law. Boxer’s stance pits her against fellow California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. AP

A controversial California water bill that’s sparked years of fighting has been added to a fast-moving measure, boosting the chance the water measures will pass Congress but sharply dividing the state’s U.S. senators.

In a remarkable break for the two longtime Democratic allies, Sen. Barbara Boxer pledged Monday to fight against the legislation written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Now in the final weeks of her congressional career, Boxer said she would seek to block the broader water-projects bill to which Feinstein and her Republican allies in the House of Representatives had attached the California measure.

“This is a devastating maneuver,” Boxer said. “This last-minute backroom deal is so wrong. It is shocking, and it will have devastating consequences if it makes it into law, which I can tell you I will do everything in my power to make sure that it never, ever makes it into law.”

Though she has allies, Boxer’s stand might prove a relatively lonely one, as the larger Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act is the kind of bill that typically enjoys wide bipartisan support. The House and Senate expect to take it up, with its dozens of pages related to California water, over the next week.

“This bill isn’t perfect but I do believe it will help California,” Feinstein said. “After three years and dozens of versions of legislation, I think this is the best we can do.”

Pointedly, Feinstein added that “if we don’t move now, we run the real risk of legislation . . . when Congress will again be under Republican control, this time backed by a Trump administration.”

Based largely on legislation Feinstein introduced last February, the California water provisions authorize $558 million for desalination, recycling and storage projects, among other proposals. The legislation does not identify what specific storage projects will receive funding.

The provisions also authorize, for five years, what Feinstein described as “operational provisions” that will “help operate the water system more efficiently, pumping water when fish are not nearby.” It eases limits on moving water south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to help San Joaquin Valley farms, but does not mandate specific pumping levels.

The bill includes language designed to ensure that federal water officials must still abide by laws including the Endangered Species Act, as well as the biological opinions that guide protections for certain species.

Nonetheless, Boxer said she and Feinstein had a “big disagreement.”

“Ninety-eight percent of the time we see everything the same way. We don’t see (this) the same way,” Boxer said.

Boxer, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and other environmental groups, charged that the measure would roll back the Endangered Species Act, risking drinking water and fishing jobs in California by shifting water from the environment to large-scale corporate agriculture.

Boxer said her allies in fighting the measure included Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Boxer said there was enough opposition to make it difficult for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring the water bill to a vote unless the California “poison pill” was removed.

She pledged to slow down unrelated legislation unless it is taken out.

“They are not playing a game with someone who will not play hardball,” Boxer said

The broader water resources bill, which spans more than 700 pages, is all but guaranteed to pass in the Republican-controlled House, where Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield praised the California provisions as “an important moment for California.” Fresno-area Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat, likewise offered support for the package.

Thirteen House Democrats – including a number from Northern California led by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael – have already written to the Obama administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, declaring the proposal “undermines both state and federal environmental protections for the Delta ecosystem.” The House Democrats, though, have little ability to stop the bill, and the House has repeatedly passed related California water legislation authored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

“These provisions will not solve California’s water crisis, but they will provide interim relief, which my constituents desperately need,” Valadao said Monday.

The Senate, though also controlled by Republicans, can be more unpredictable, as members of the minority have more parliamentary tools at their disposal.

Senate colleagues since 1993, Boxer and Feinstein usually have been able to maintain a relatively unified front in public even on the most contentious California water conflicts. Behind the scenes, Feinstein has been the one actively negotiating with Central Valley irrigation districts, while Boxer has until now played a much quieter role.

On Monday, Boxer sought to attribute the responsibility for the California water provisions to McCarthy, saying she didn’t know what role Feinstein had played in the backroom negotiations that resulted in the provisions becoming attached to the larger water resources bill.

Feinstein’s role was, in fact, crucial and won praise from McCarthy, who said the package “could not have been finalized” without her.

“Action is long overdue,” Feinstein said.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10; Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham