House approves California water plan that splits state’s Democratic senators

In this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., departs an orientation luncheon for newly-elected GOP members of the House, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., departs an orientation luncheon for newly-elected GOP members of the House, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

The House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the biggest federal reset of California water use in a generation, setting the stage for easier dam-building, more recycling and potentially happier Central Valley farmers.

By a 360 to 61 vote that divided California representatives, the House approved the drought-inspired California provisions as part of a broader water projects bill that now heads to the Senate. Disappointing environmentalists and some Northern California Democrats, the White House declined to issue a potentially lethal veto threat.

“It is a bill that helps deliver water to our communities,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. “It will increase pumping. It will increase storage. It will fund more desalination, efficiency and recycling projects.”

McCarthy and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and their staffs, negotiated the approximately 91-page California package and added it to the politically popular Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The broader bill authorizes more than $11 billion worth of projects nationwide, ranging from Lake Tahoe restoration to fixing lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich.

Feinstein’s long-time colleague, retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, is fighting against the infrastructure legislation she would otherwise support because of the last-minute addition of the California provisions she fears will harm the environment. While Boxer is vehement in her opposition, she appears outnumbered.

“Even our senators do not agree on whether this is best for California,” noted bill opponent Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “The blind disregard for facts and expert feedback by the sponsors of this measure is downright dangerous.”

Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento added that the California package was a “poison pill,” though she ended up voting for the overall bill that included infrastructure projects she supports.

A total of 138 House Democrats voted for the bill, including Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. The number of Democrats supporting the broader water infrastructure bill, even if they had doubts about some of the Central Valley provisions, suggested Boxer’s resistance might not be able to drag on for very long.

“It is a good bill for California,” Costa said. “I reject the notion that it’s a poison pill.”

The White House and the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown both effectively stayed out of the fray. The Obama administration did not issue the traditional statement of administration policy, and the California Natural Resources Agency declined to comment on the bill.

The $558 million California water package approved Thursday has its roots in more ambitious legislation first introduced by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, in May 2011 and subsequently carried forward by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford. These earlier versions included elements, like ending an expensive San Joaquin River restoration program, that didn’t make it into the current bill, but the constant House pushing seemed to pressure the Senate.

“Water scarcity in the Central Valley carries serious consequences, not only for my constituents and our state, but for our entire nation,” Valadao said.

The money in the House bill offers $335 million for proposed California water storage projects that are not explicitly named, but that are intended to include Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. The funding is only a fraction of the total amount needed for the multi-billion-dollar projects.

Another big chunk of money would support recycling, reuse or desalination projects in California that are likewise left unnamed to avoid a congressional earmark ban.

More controversially, the bill eases limits on moving water south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to help San Joaquin Valley farms like those in the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District. Two of Westlands’ top executives were on Capitol Hill this week for the legislative climax.

The bill does not specify how much more water might flow to California farms, though some supporters estimate the additional deliveries could range between 250,000 and 400,000 acre-feet in a typical year.

“We’ve watched too often as water from winter storms has flowed uncaptured out to sea,” said Paul Wenger, a Stanislaus County grower who is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

For farmers north of the Delta, the bill directs the Interior Department to make “every reasonable effort” to make full water deliveries to Sacramento Valley irrigation districts.

The bill includes language making it easier to build new Western dams and other water projects, which critics fear could aid Gov. Brown’s controversial twin-tunnels plan to divert water around the Delta. Supporters and opponents, though, differ over the reach of this language, as they do over whether the bill busts through the Endangered Species Act.

At the behest of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, the bill also ends a goal of doubling the Delta’s striped-bass population, and targets non-native predatory fish in the Stanislaus River for elimination.

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated Rep. Matsui voted against the bill.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10