California water bill has three possible paths for passage

In this photo taken Monday, May 18, 2015, Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed on land he farms near Stockton, Calif. Celli draws his irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
In this photo taken Monday, May 18, 2015, Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed on land he farms near Stockton, Calif. Celli draws his irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. AP

House Republicans this week are adding a controversial California water bill to an unrelated Senate energy package, opening a new front in a fight that’s already put Democrats on the defensive.

The unexpected energy bill maneuver gives San Joaquin Valley lawmakers a third vehicle they might propel all the way to the White House. At the least, it builds up steam for the GOP drive to boost California water storage and divert more irrigation deliveries to Valley farms.

“Farmers, families and entire communities are suffering, and unnecessarily so,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, Calif., said Monday.

On Tuesday, the leadership-controlled House Rules Committee is scheduled to pack the California water bill and about three dozen other bills onto the Senate energy legislation. The full House will then take up the massive package, spanning more than 1,000 pages, later this week.

I look forward to going to conference with the Senate on both pieces of legislation so that we may provide our constituents with the drought relief they so desperately need.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

Many of the House add-ons are narrowly focused. Several extend deadlines for specific hydroelectric projects. One, by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, Calif., would rename a Sierra National Forest mountain feature as “Sky Point” in honor of the late Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Sky Mote.

Spanning some 174 pages, the California water legislation introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, Calif., has a much broader reach and has been stuck on Capitol Hill for several years. The Obama administration, Northern California Democrats and the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown have all raised concerns about it.

Valadao’s bill would repeal an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, and replace it with something smaller. It directs sale of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River to local water districts and speeds studies of five potential storage projects, including a new dam on the Upper San Joaquin River. It mandates pumping water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

It previously passed the House as a stand-alone measure and then stalled.

“The House has passed a bill that I don’t believe, candidly, can pass the Senate,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said last week.

Tactical decisions could now determine its fate.

One approach involves the Senate passing a multistate Western water package that could include California-oriented language authored by Feinstein. House and Senate negotiators would then try to work out their differences on what would amount to a huge water bill.

“Senator Feinstein will review whatever action Republicans take in the House,” Feinstein’s communications director, Tom Mentzer, said Monday. “In the meantime she’s working on securing a markup of her bill in the Senate.”

A number of Northern California Democrats oppose the Feinstein legislation, and they fear even more what it might become amid further negotiations dominated by Republicans.

A second approach exploits the annual must-pass appropriations bills. The House version of the Fiscal 2017 energy and water bill includes language that mandates more Delta water pumping and blocks spending on San Joaquin River restoration. Negotiations with the Senate will ensue following House passage.

The House is scheduled to debate and pass the $37.4 billion energy and water bill this week.

The newly unveiled third approach uses the broader energy policy bill, where members of the House and Senate must again work out their differences.

A lot of this work takes place behind closed doors, although teams of negotiators are named to a formal conference committee.

“The two bills that will be on the House floor and voted on this week give Congress a new opportunity to get various provisions passed into law that will help relieve California of the drought crisis it faces in the short- and long-term,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, one of the few House Democrats to support the GOP bill.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10