Water & Drought

Another step in long march toward California water deal in Congress

In this file photo, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., poses for a re-creation of his swearing in on Capitol Hill in Washington as the 113th Congress began. Jan. 3, 2013
In this file photo, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., poses for a re-creation of his swearing in on Capitol Hill in Washington as the 113th Congress began. Jan. 3, 2013 AP

A key House committee on Wednesday approved a big irrigation drainage deal with California’s politically potent Westlands Water District, opening another front in the state’s ongoing conflict over water, money and power.

Watched over by a handful of lobbyists and activists, the House Natural Resources Committee approved the controversial Westlands deal by a mostly party line 27-to-12 vote following an occasionally testy markup. Fresno-area Rep. Jim Costa was one of only three Democrats on the committee to support the legislation.

“It resolves a long-festering challenge that we’ve had,” Costa said during the hour-long session.

The irrigation drainage deal will likely next win party-line approval in the Republican-controlled House as well, but its long-term future remains unclear. Neither of California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and the retiring Barbara Boxer, have endorsed the deal that’s embodied in the House legislation introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

Feinstein, in particular, has insisted that her first priority is to complete broader California water legislation that’s been bouncing around for the past several years.

Valadao’s bill would forgive a roughly $375 million debt owed by Westlands and secure for the Rhode Island-sized district in the San Joaquin Valley favorable new water contracts. In return, the district would retire 100,000 of its 600,000 acres and relieve the federal government of its obligation to build a potentially multibillion-dollar irrigation drainage system.

The end-game, in the closing weeks of the 114th Congress, will be complicated. The deal was negotiated by the Obama administration’s Justice Department but remains toxic to a number of California Democrats and environmentalists who’ve long fought Westlands.

“This is a bad deal for the environment and other water users in California,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, adding that the bill is a “taxpayer giveaway.”

The debate between Huffman and Costa grew heated at times, with Huffman at one point threatening to demand that Costa’s words be “taken down,” as a parliamentary slap. Following some gavel-banging and calming words by the committee chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the conversation cooled down considerably.

Substantively, Huffman further underscored the enduring conflicts with a series of three failed but signal-sending amendments. Pointedly, one amendment defeated by voice vote would have blocked any federal official who previously worked or lobbied for Westlands in the past 10 years from overseeing implementation of the drainage deal.

“Former employees of the Westlands Water District will be marching through that revolving door,” Huffman predicted.

One former Montana congressman who now lobbies for Westlands, Denny Rehberg, observed the proceedings Wednesday morning in the half-filled, third-floor committee room in the Longworth House Office Building. David Bernhardt of the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, another one of Westlands’ deep bench of D.C.-based lobbyists, has been heading the Interior Department transition team for the incoming Trump administration.

On Wednesday, without offering specifics, the Trump transition team announced it would tighten restrictions governing the use of lobbyists.

The irrigation drainage deal was negotiated over the past several years with the Obama administration, under pressure from a federal court ruling that imposed an unpalatable alternative of providing the irrigation drainage. The drainage was promised beginning with the 1960 legislation authorizing the Central Valley Project’s San Luis Unit, but only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain terminated prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir in Merced County.

Without drainage, otherwise fertile soil becomes poisoned by a build-up of salty water. The accumulation of selenium-tainted groundwater at Kesterson killed and deformed thousands of birds in the mid-1980s.

As part of the deal, Westlands would assume responsibility for managing the irrigation drainage.

“You’ve got to take a win when it’s right in front of you,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale.

Separate legislation, authored by Costa includes the smaller San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco water districts located north of Westlands in western Merced and Fresno counties in a similar irrigation drainage settlement. That settlement has not yet been finalized, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., noted Wednesday that the “FBI is involved” with a previously disclosed Interior Department Office of Inspector General investigation somehow touching on one or more of the northerly districts.

No details of the investigation have been made public.

A Costa-authored amendment approved as part of the Westlands bill on Wednesday would direct the administration to reach a settlement with the three northerly districts.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10