Angry California Republicans call drought bill dead for the year

A bone-dry Millerton Lake near the town of Friant, Calif., in July 2015. On Thursday, Republicans in California’s House delegation said a California water bill with provisions that would’ve helped bring more reservoir storage was dead for the year.
A bone-dry Millerton Lake near the town of Friant, Calif., in July 2015. On Thursday, Republicans in California’s House delegation said a California water bill with provisions that would’ve helped bring more reservoir storage was dead for the year.

Angry California Republicans threw in the towel late Thursday, conceding that a California water bill that had divided the state was dead for the year.

In a remarkably acrimonious ending to negotiations that once seemed close to bearing fruit, GOP House members acknowledged the bill’s failure while putting the blame squarely on California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

“It’s dead, unfortunately,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said in an interview Thursday afternoon, adding in a later statement that “our good faith negotiations came to naught.”

The utter collapse of negotiations means a California water package that in its latest manifestation spanned 92 pages will not be slipped into a much larger, much-pass omnibus federal spending package needed to keep the federal government open. If legislative efforts are revived, they will come in the new year.

The House has proposed a compromise to ease the California water crisis -- one that satisfies the Senate's demands -- and once again Senate Democrats are rejecting our efforts by prioritizing fish over families.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California.

Crafted with what Northern California Democrats called excessive secrecy, the House GOP’s latest proposal would have sped up water storage studies, steered more water to agriculture and funded various recycling and desalination projects, among other measures.

Underscoring their frustration, though in a way that could chill future congressional relations, Calvert and 13 other California House Republicans joined in an extraordinary group statement that sought to absolve the GOP of any blame for the water bill’s failure.

The Capitol Hill fingerpointing went both ways.

“If Republicans want to know who is to blame for the stalemate on water, they only have to look in the mirror,” Boxer said Thursday night, “because all they do is keeping pitting one stakeholder against another, which will only lead to the courthouse door.”

But the most organized and emphatic effort to spin the water bill’s failure came from the Republicans, who control both House and Senate. They pinned all responsibility for the legislation’s failure on Boxer and Feinstein.

Targeting Feinstein, in particular, showed the depths of the Republicans’ bitterness, as she has been their consistent negotiating partner. Late last year, following earlier talks, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, made a point of praising the state’s senior senator.

On Thursday night, though, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield complained that Boxer and Feinstein “have opposed every legislative effort to find bipartisan agreement” while Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, declared that “our senators from California have failed to get a single piece of legislation, even vaguely related to the drought, passed in the Senate this year.”

“If anyone still wonders why Congress has not approved pumping more water for California communities, they should look at the Senate’s inexplicable refusal to take yes for an answer,” Nunes said Thursday.

Introduced in late July by Feinstein and Boxer, a 147-page Senate bill was the political counterpart to a 170-page bill approved July 16 by the House of Representatives along largely party lines.

The Senate bill authorizes partial funding for new water storage projects, including Sites Reservoir proposed for the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat proposed for the Upper San Joaquin River. It funds water recycling and desalination projects and potentially eases the delivery of more water to San Joaquin Valley farms.

The original House bill introduced by Valadao, which was the starting point for negotiations, would have repealed an ambitious San Joaquin River salmon-and-habitat restoration program and replaced it with something smaller. It directed the sale of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River to local water districts. It added artificially spawned salmon or smelt when counting Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta fish populations under the Endangered Species Act.

House Republicans dropped a number of controversial provisions, like the one scaling back the San Joaquin River restoration program, while they accepted some of the recycling and desalination funding sought by Democrats. They also, Democrats say, pursued negotiations and cut deals without fully informing all parties, and environmentalists constantly feared being surprised.

“This time of year,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Thursday afternoon, “I always sleep with one eye open.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10