California water-bill fight is percolating again on Capitol Hill

A view of the receding waterline from the east end of Folsom lake on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 14, 2015.
A view of the receding waterline from the east end of Folsom lake on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 14, 2015.

California water will retake the Capitol Hill stage in coming days, with compromise nowhere in sight.

Deep into a largely arid legislative season, lawmakers will again reflect on the state’s drought as early as Monday and wrangle over efforts to address it. A hearing and one or two votes in the House of Representatives whose outcomes are effectively preordained will expose the divisions that endure.

“Things are on hold for the moment,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said Friday, adding that “I don’t think we’re going to see a compromise” for at least several months.

Underscoring the many complications entangling California water, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the Westlands Water District on Friday sued the federal Bureau of Reclamation over measures intended to protect endangered species.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing an ambitious water package opposed by Northern California Democrats and the Obama administration. The package’s key elements include steering more water to San Joaquin Valley farms and authorizing several new storage facilities.

With negotiations seemingly stuck, if they are happening at all, GOP lawmakers are now taking a multipronged pressure approach that entails folding California water provisions into as many other legislative vehicles as possible.

The next one coming into play is a fiscal 2017 funding bill for the Interior Department, Forest Service and other agencies. The 184-page bill includes about 20 pages devoted to California water issues, including a yearlong freeze on spending for San Joaquin River restoration.

“In the context of how we’re going to get things done around here, I think it’s the best vehicle right now,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, who warned of the consequences for California “if we don’t take action on water storage, water supply and water handling.”

On Monday, the gatekeeping House Rules Committee is scheduled to set the crucial terms for debate on the $32 billion Interior funding bill. These rules include which of 159 proposed amendments will be permitted to get votes on the House floor.

One proposed amendment, by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, would eliminate the controversial California water provisions from the Interior bill. One of two fates awaits McNerney’s amendment in the short term, neither of them good for him.

The GOP leadership-controlled House Rules Committee, with Republicans enjoying a 9-4 advantage over Democrats, could simply block McNerney from offering his amendment. That would be one way to ensure that the water provisions, written by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, get through the House.

Even if McNerney does get the green light for a 20-minute debate and floor vote sometime next week, the amendment is certain to fail in the full House, where Republicans have a 247-187 partisan advantage.

“It shouldn’t be in the bill in the first place,” McNerney said Friday of the California water provisions, calling them a “poisonous rider” that is “going to ship water to interests south of the Delta.”

A fiscal 2017 energy and water spending bill and a stand-alone energy bill are other potential ways for the California water provisions to get before the House. Even if they pass, however, they’ll likely be subject to a conference committee that will be charged with reconciling differences between House and Senate legislation.

“They’re setting up a situation where these proposals could be put into must-pass legislation,” Garamendi said.

A House Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee hearing Tuesday morning on what’s billed as the “water supply uncertainty in California” will give lawmakers another chance to make their well-practiced points.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10