Water & Drought

California water bills are starting to trickle out on Capitol Hill

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, at Fresno City Hall in March 2014.
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, at Fresno City Hall in March 2014. Vida en el Valle

The lead author in the House of Representatives of a big and controversial California water bill that passed last year is back for more.

With a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress, Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said Tuesday that he was hoping to build on last year’s legislation that was loved by farmers and loathed by environmentalists.

The bill scales back an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, speeds completion of California dam feasibility studies and locks in certain water deliveries to Sacramento Valley irrigation districts, among other things. Parts of the bill would not have been accepted by the Obama administration, but the Trump team is different.

“When we would negotiate in the past, it was always, ‘Well, the president will never sign this,’ ” Valadao said in an interview. “And now, it will be the reverse. The president will sign this, or will want to sign something stronger.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump covered a wide range of topics at a rally in downtown Fresno's Selland Arena on Friday, May 27, 2016.

The Trump administration’s key water-related offices, though, remain vacant, while the president’s nominee to head the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., awaits Senate confirmation. A vote on Zinke is expected this week, after which crucial positions – including his deputy and the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation – must be filled.

Most speculation about the important deputy slot revolves around David Bernhardt, a lawyer and former lobbyist for Westlands Water District.

This year’s efforts, moreover, also come amid changed climatic circumstances, which can, in turn, alter the political climate. Instead of the drought images that helped drive lawmakers in recent years, the current popular impressions of California water consist of San Jose flooding and gushers from Oroville Dam.

“We’re wet,” Valadao acknowledged.

I was very clear that (last year’s bill) was a baby step, and that we needed to take another step right away.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

Valadao put the ball back in play on the first day of the new Congress, the start of his third term representing a district that spans Kings County and portions of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. Thirteen House co-sponsors joined him on a 125-page bill dubbed the Gaining Responsibility on Water Act.

“We’re looking to move it along as soon as possible,” Valadao said, adding that the timing “will be up to leadership.”

With that leadership including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, relatively expeditious House action could happen even in the face of resistance from Northern California lawmakers. The Senate, as always, will be much trickier, with California’s freshman Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris still building her staff and formulating the role she wants to play.

Opponents fear that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem would be harmed if more water is pumped south to irrigate farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I suspect they’ll try more of the same, more false choices, pitting fish against farms,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in an interview Tuesday. “There will be the usual attempts to use whatever conditions are present as a pretext for jamming their agenda. It’s been drought the last five years, and now it’s going to be flood.”

Western flood control will, in fact, come into the spotlight during a Wednesday morning hearing of the House Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee, with scheduled witnesses including Andy Fecko, director of resource development for California’s Placer County Water Agency.

Valadao’s new bill, meanwhile attempts to revive, in part, provisions that were introduced but ultimately dropped from the last big California water bill. The previous legislation cleared Congress last December, after years of struggle and over the fervent opposition of then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Valadao became the lead author of the prior bill, following earlier versions introduced by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. In its final form, it included $558 million for assorted projects.

Some impact from last year’s bill, Valadao added, may be noticed when the federal Bureau of Reclamation announces water allocations for Central Valley Project customers.

“I’ve got communities all along the east side of the Valley that are struggling,” Valadao said.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10