The politics of California water is becoming three-dimensional chess in Congress as lawmakers balance competing anti-drought ideas with a proposed San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage settlement that’s going to get bigger.
In a fresh gambit, a key House subcommittee on Wednesday approved controversial California water provisions that would steer more water to farmers. Soon, some of these same farmers will be seeking additional legislation to settle a long-running drainage dispute.
While the California drought and drainage proposals are distinct, they involve many of the same lawmakers, incite similar regional tensions and in the end could become entangled in each other’s fate.
“A lot of dots begin to connect here,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Wednesday.
The initial moves involve California provisions folded into an 82-page bill that funds federal energy and water programs for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives energy and water appropriations subcommittee unanimously approved the $37.4 billion package Wednesday.
The California provisions modify proposals that have previously failed in Congress over the past four years. They include mandated pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a freeze on an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program.
“It moves the ball in the right direction,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I wish it would have happened last December, (but) we’re going to take every opportunity possible.”
Valadao wrote the original House bills from which the California provisions were taken.
This year El Nino storms have blessed our state with rain and snow. But the Bureau of Reclamation has pumped less this year than last year when we faced historic dry periods.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Northern California Democrats, including those representing parts of the Delta, oppose the familiar-sounding measures. While all but certain to pass the House, parts of the energy and water package will inevitably face resistance in the Senate and the White House.
“Same old, same old,” Huffman said. “This is another highly partisan, overreaching play on the same lousy bill.”
Huffman has proposed his own California water bill that includes a variety of recycling grants, watershed protection programs and desalination studies. It doesn’t stand a chance in a House where Republicans command a 246-188 majority, though individual items might survive.
The Senate’s version of the 2017 energy and water bill, also approved by subcommittee Wednesday, includes $100 million for assorted drought-relief programs but omits the California measures preferred by House Republicans.
In theory, this conflict sets the stage for a negotiating conference where House and Senate appropriators work out their differences. Some GOP lawmakers have long believed their best shot at a California water win will come in just such a conference committee on a must-pass bill.
The irrigation drainage settlement, so far, occupies a different board level in the chess game, but that could change.
In January, Valadao introduced a bill to implement a settlement between the Westlands Water District and the federal government over the Bureau of Reclamation’s environmentally damaging failure to provide irrigation drainage.
The bill mirrors a legal settlement announced last September, relieving the federal government of the obligation to provide drainage. In return, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland and have its own remaining debt of roughly $375 million forgiven, among other changes.
Three smaller San Joaquin Valley water districts, sometimes dubbed the “Northerly Districts,” have now neared an agreement on their own irrigation drainage settlement. Like the Westlands agreement, the tentative deal with the San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco water districts relieves the government of drainage responsibilities and forgives the water districts’ remaining debts.
“It appears they are very close,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Wednesday.
Costa noted that the boards of the districts have agreed to a proposed settlement, which would also include some $70 million in federal payments for anti-salinity efforts. The deal still needs sign-off by the federal Office of Management and Budget, which can seem sluggish and opaque to outsiders.
Once final, perhaps later this spring, the Northerly Districts’ drainage settlement will also be translated into legislation, putting one more piece into play in a Congress where nothing comes easy.