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House sets stage for post-election showdown over California water

A diversion canal operated by the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District near Byron, California.
A diversion canal operated by the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District near Byron, California. AP

Controversial efforts to steer more water toward California farms advanced Wednesday in the House of Representatives, setting up yet another post-election showdown.

Amid frustration and finger-pointing from all sides, the Republican-controlled House rejected Northern California Democrats’ efforts to strip the California water provisions from a fiscal 2017 funding bill.

The House’s actions, following debate Tuesday night, mean House and Senate negotiators will once again confront technical and highly consequential California water language when they work out a final federal government funding package.

“We are going to continue to push until we can get some support so we can fix this problem,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said Tuesday night.

By a nearly party line 181-248 vote Wednesday, the House rejected a bid to erase the 21 pages of California water provisions from the 184-page funding bill. Only four Democrats voted with Republicans to keep the farmer-oriented California language, including Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno.

We have houses that, when they turn on a faucet, they no longer have water.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

But with no signs of Capitol Hill compromise evident, the prospects for a final deal on an ambitious California water package first introduced in 2011 seem bleak. Illustrating the political atmosphere, Republicans are already excoriating Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, their past and potentially future negotiating partner.

On Tuesday night, Valadao blasted as “beyond disappointing” what he termed Feinstein’s “inability” to get California water language on an unrelated energy bill. Negotiators agreed to keep the energy bill clean of provisions that had attracted a presidential veto threat.

The White House Office of Management and Budget said this week that it “strongly opposes” the California water legislation and would recommend a vetoing the fiscal 2017 funding bill to which it was attached.

“These provisions would ravage the ecology of the Delta, destroy the local fish and wildlife, and harm communities we serve,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton.

McNerney’s congressional district includes parts of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the sprawling centerpiece of California’s complex water system. Roughly two-thirds of the state’s residents, and millions of acres of farmland, rely on water coming through the Delta.

San Joaquin Valley farmers want more water exported south of the Delta, and think the federal Bureau of Reclamation should have more authority to deliver water in times of drought. Environmentalists, in turn, fear for an ecosystem epitomized by disappearing species like the Delta smelt, while salmon fishermen need healthy rivers for their livelihood.

“Obviously,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said Tuesday night, “this is an emotional subject.”

Valadao, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, is the lead author of the California water legislation, first introduced as a stand-alone bill and more recently added in modified form to the bill to fund the Interior Department, Forest Service and other agencies for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Among the California provisions are proposals to stop funding for an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, address water storage at the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River and authorize the “operational flexibility” that would direct more water to farms.

Unlike other versions of California water legislation, this one does not authorize new storage facilities, including one that has previously been proposed for Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River.

In theory, the overall $32.1 billion Interior bill set for House approval late Wednesday night would be reconciled with a Senate version and then passed separately as one of 12 appropriations bills that keep the federal government running. In practice, Congress has been unable to pass these once-routine bills and instead rolls them together into a post-election bill known as the “omnibus.”

“They are setting up a situation where their proposals could be put into a piece of must-pass legislation, an omnibus or something,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove. “If they’re successful, then game over. If they’re not successful, then there will be discussions.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10