California drought bill roils Capitol Hill waters

FILE - In this Monday, May 18, 2015 file photo, Gino Celli inspects wheat nearing harvest on his drough-sricken farm near Stockton, Calif.
FILE - In this Monday, May 18, 2015 file photo, Gino Celli inspects wheat nearing harvest on his drough-sricken farm near Stockton, Calif. AP

A Republican-drafted California water bill approved by the House of Representatives on Thursday now faces a serious test in the Senate and beyond.

Loaded with provisions sought by GOP lawmakers and San Joaquin Valley farmers, the 170-page package won approval on a 245-176 vote following roughly two hours of sometimes contentious and often familiar debate.

“This is something we take very seriously,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the bill’s lead author. “We’re helping deliver real water to the Valley.”

Only five Democrats, including Rep. Jim Costa of California, voted for the bill that’s opposed by the Obama administration and numerous environmental groups, and that has alarmed some in Sacramento, as well. Even supporters quietly acknowledge some provisions won’t survive, while opponents denounce the measure as entirely one-sided.

“It’s another bill that’s going nowhere,” predicted Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., adding that “when exposed to public scrutiny, it simply falls apart.”

The bill would repeal an ambitious San Joaquin River salmon-and-habitat restoration program, and replace it with something smaller. It orders the sale of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River to local water districts. It adds artificially spawned salmon or smelt when counting Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta fish populations under the Endangered Species Act.

The bill spurs completion of long-awaited studies of five potential water storage projects, including a proposed $360 million expansion of the existing San Luis Reservoir, and it penalizes the Bureau of Reclamation $20,000 a day for missed study deadlines.

Fundamentally, and most controversially, the legislation steers more water to agriculture.

“We designed the bill to move as much water down south to our farms and cities as possible without making any fundamental changes to the environmental law,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose Bakersfield-based congressional district spans the San Joaquin Valley’s southern end.

A Los Angeles-area Democrat long involved in state water issues, Rep. Grace Napolitano, countered that the measure “focuses on the Central Valley at the expense of Northern California and Southern California.”

Introduced six months into the current Congress, and then sped to the House floor without being subjected to a standard committee oversight hearing, the Western Water and American Food Security Act prompted strong emotional appeals. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. declared that “without new water supplies, we’ll continue to see our farmers go out of business.”

The bill’s debate, though it played out to only about two dozen lawmakers on the House floor Thursday morning, also incited the kind of uncompromising charge-and-counter-charge long characteristic of California water politics.

Republican Rep. Tom McClintock blamed the state’s water shortages on the “nihilistic vision of the environmental left,” while GOP colleague Rep. Ken Calvert blamed the “don’t-do-anything faction” and Rep. Devin Nunes contended that “continuously, nearly all the Democrats have said no” to water solutions.

In turn, Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney said Republicans were “recycling old, bad ideas” that would “further disrupt” the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and his Democratic colleague Rep. Mike Thompson charged the bill “makes a bad situation even worse.” The Obama administration has threatened a veto.

“It’s a work in progress, obviously,” Costa allowed. “It’s going to be amended and changed.”

Democratic Rep. John Garamendi also offered a somewhat conciliatory tone, saying, “There’s a lot in this bill that goes in the right direction,” especially in the area of water storage, while warning that the GOP bill also includes “things that are very, very troublesome.”

The next steps will be up to the Senate, where the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, has expressed interest in moving a larger Western states package. Unlike her House GOP counterparts, Murkowski has already convened this year a full committee oversight hearing to specifically examine the drought.

With Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer strongly of California denouncing the House bill, the other key target may be Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. To the occasional dismay of some of her fellow California Democrats, Feinstein has actively sought to negotiate a compromise acceptable to both farmers and Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration in Sacramento.

So far, the Brown administration has not signed on.

State officials note, for instance, that the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the House bill would have the effect of “pre-empting the ability of the state of California to enforce its own water management and wildlife preservation laws.”

“While I cannot support the bill as passed,” Feinstein said in a statement Thursday, “I remain hopeful we can come to an agreement that can advance through both chambers.”

In particular, Feinstein said she’d like to “facilitate water transfers and maximize water pumping without violating environmental laws” while also supporting “water recycling, storage, desalination and groundwater replenishment.”