House passes California drought bill and political floodgates open

02/05/2014 3:42 PM

02/05/2014 5:30 PM

A bitterly divided House approved a sweeping California water bill Wednesday that puts the Senate on the spot and splits the drought-ridden state into several competing camps.

Forgoing the usual oversight and hearings, Republican leaders pushed the drought-inspired bill through at warp speed and largely along party lines. The 229-191 House approval of a bill introduced last week now sets up a clash with the Senate, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been promising for some time to introduce her own ideas.

“We have to make sure the crisis we’re facing today is addressed,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., “If the other side has a solution, bring it to the table. I’m happy to negotiate. Until then, I’m going to continue to fight.”

The House bill introduced by Valadao is both far-reaching and, critics say, politically far-fetched. The White House on Wednesday threatened a presidential veto, echoing the opposition previously raised by California Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers close to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Some provisions in particular seem doomed in the Senate. One in particular is opposed by water districts on the San Joaquin Valley’s east side.

“Instead of working together, this bill only further divides the state,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.

The 68-page House bill, though, has also seemed to goad both the Senate and the Obama administration into action. Administration officials happened to choose this week to announce several types of drought aid for California. Feinstein is working on a bill expected to be introduced along with a companion measure by some California House Democrats. As of Wednesday, this alternative spanned about 27 pages.

“It’s time for cooler heads to prevail,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. “I hope that we can engender bipartisan support, because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s going to take.”

In a statement Wednesday, Feinstein said that she and her California Democratic colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer, would offer drought legislation soon.

“Each day I monitor the California drought, and each day brings more concern,” Feinstein said.

The Senate was very much on House lawmakers’ minds as they considered the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act throughout Wednesday afternoon. Some like Costa, one of the few Democrats to vote for the House bill, stressed the need for civil negotiations. Others were harsher toward their colleagues on the other side of the Capitol, raising questions about the negotiating climate that’s being set.

Underscoring the tensions, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., denounced the House bill as a “legislative temper tantrum,” while a key bill supporter, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., scathingly cited environmentalists’ “stupid fish, their little delta smelt,” that is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“For 40 years, this body has been taking water from one region and dumping it and wasting it in the ocean,” Nunes said, adding later that bill opponents “don’t live in reality” and deal in “falsehoods.”

Nunes authored the original version of the California water bill, which passed the House in 2012 and then died in the Senate. Much of the current bill is drawn verbatim from his earlier measure.

The House bill limits part of a landmark 1992 law that directed more water to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It removes wild-and-scenic protections from a half-mile of the Merced River in order to potentially expand McClure Reservoir. It allows more storage at New Melones Reservoir, lengthens federal irrigation contracts to 40 years and preempts some state law.

“California’s drought is nature’s fault,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., chairman of the House water and power subcommittee, “but our failure to prepare for it is our fault.”

The House bill streamlines water transfers, making it easier to move water around the state. It authorizes construction of two water storage facilities, on the Upper San Joaquin River and at the Sites Reservoir location in Colusa County, as well as the enlargement of two existing facilities including Shasta Dam. However, no federal funds are authorized for the ambitious projects.

The House measure repeals the expensive San Joaquin River restoration effort that has cost more than $100 million to date and is on track to cost much more. The bill replaces the restoration plan with something much smaller, though it’s unclear how that would fit with a court-approved legal settlement that ended a lawsuit filed in 1988. Feinstein authored the original river restoration bill and her public support for it has not waned.

Federal officials announced Monday they were suspending restoration release of San Joaquin River water through 2015.

During a debate that went on several hours, the House rejected a series of Democratic amendments authored by Delta-area lawmakers who were primarily trying to make a point. Several amendments, including different versions authored by California Democratic Reps. Ami Bera and Jerry McNerney, would have suspended the bill unless officials certified it would not harm water quality or availability in the Delta region.

“We all agree there’s a problem,” Bera said, so “let’s sit down and talk about a solution.”

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