Water & Drought

White House won’t support California water bill that’s already divided its senators

McClure Reservoir dropped so low in 2015 that it supplied virtually no water to the Merced Irrigation District. Photo taken in 2015 by district employee Mike Jensen.
McClure Reservoir dropped so low in 2015 that it supplied virtually no water to the Merced Irrigation District. Photo taken in 2015 by district employee Mike Jensen. jholland@Modbee.com

The White House on Tuesday voiced doubts about controversial California water legislation that has already caused an unusually public split between the state’s two Democratic senators.

Meeting with reporters, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the California provisions that span some 91 pages of often-technical text seemed problematic, though he cautioned that analysis continues.

“Based on what we know so far, we don’t support the kinds of proposals that have been put forward to address some of the water resources issues in California right now,” Earnest said. “So, we don’t support that measure that’s being put forward, but we’ll take a look at the bill in its totality.”

If it holds firm, the Obama administration’s resistance could greatly complicate efforts by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield to add the California language onto a sprawling bill that pays for many other projects nationwide.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer had helped negotiate the larger bill, called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, as the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This larger bill includes California-specific provisions, including continued funding for Lake Tahoe restorations.

Boxer vehemently opposes, though, the additional California language negotiated over an extended time among Feinstein, McCarthy and their respective teams. Boxer and environmental groups fear water diversions for the benefit of farmers will harm vulnerable habitat and threatened species, among other potential problems.

Based largely on legislation Feinstein introduced last February, as well as competing measures pushed by House Republicans, the California water provisions authorize $558 million for desalination, recycling and storage projects, among other proposals. The legislation does not identify what specific storage projects will receive funding.

The provisions authorize, for five years, what Feinstein described as “operational provisions” that will “help operate the water system more efficiently, pumping water when fish are not nearby.” It eases limits on moving water south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to help San Joaquin Valley farms, and it aims to protect Northern California water deliveries, as well.

Nancy Vogel, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said in an e-mail Tuesday that “we’re not commenting on the water infrastructure bill.”

“Obviously, Boxer is not being of any help, ” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a California water bill supporter, said Tuesday. “She has refused ... to understand the challenges that we face in terms of a broken water system.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10

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