Nation & World

Water is the magic word as Californians lobby Congress for aid

San Joaquin Valley lobbying priorities this week can be summed up simply.

“Water, water, water,” Brenda Veenendaal, senior regional planner with the Fresno Council of Governments, said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

In separate, but overlapping lobbying trips that formally began Monday, officials from both Fresno and Tulare counties have been seeking support from elected lawmakers, all-important staff and Obama administration higher-ups. These are annual ventures that this year took on a different, wetter cast.

Water projects and drought relief now top the Fresno County COG wish list, which in previous years emphasized roads and rail. In some ways, the state’s well-documented drought emergency has simplified the Valley officials’ sales job, as bipartisan congressional action actually seems possible.

“It seems like they are starting to come out of their bunkers,” said Amarpreet Dhaliwal, mayor of the city of San Joaquin and chair of the Fresno COG Policy Board. “There seems to be some thawing, a little bit of movement.”

Twenty one Fresno County officials signed up for this week’s so-called “One Voice” lobbying trip, including four mayors, two city managers and two county supervisors. They’ve spent the week trekking from House offices to Senate offices, heading downtown to the White House and then bouncing back to the Hill.

Separately, four Tulare County supervisors and the county’s administrative officer have been making their own rounds. On Wednesday morning, for instance, the Tulare officials were exiting a third-floor room in the Rayburn House Office Building as the Fresno officials were meeting down on the first floor.

The two groups, accustomed to hearing that money is tight and earmarks are impossible, have both found the same sliver of hope this year.

“The environment is better,” said Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida. “The drought issue has gotten Democrats and Republicans working together.”

In part, the Valley officials are pushing specific projects. The Tulare County team is promoting plans to increase the capacity of Lake Success on the Tule River, five miles east of Porterville. One idea is to remove storage restrictions imposed because of concerns over the seismic safety of the earthen Success Dam. There is also talk of raising the dam’s spillway.

“We need to get the green light,” said Tulare County Supervisor Mike Ennis.

More broadly, the San Joaquin Valley officials are placing hopes in Congress passing a drought-driven California water bill this year. The Republican-controlled House passed one version in February, while Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California recently revised an alternative bill with plans to bring it directly to the Senate floor.

This week, Feinstein asked the Valley officials to assist in rallying support from GOP senators in a handful of states like Arizona and Alaska. The basic idea is political ricochet: the Valley officials lean on the Valley’s House Republicans, who in turn get on the horn with Republican Senate colleagues.

“She was looking for some help,” Dhaliwal said, and “we’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of the Friant Water Authority, added that the Valley officials are also “pushing those who have influence over the Interior Department to increase the water pumping” for Valley farms.

Other Valley counties also employ the “One Voice” moniker to characterize their annual council of governments’ lobbying trips. San Joaquin County sent 41 representatives to D.C. this week, while the Merced County delegation is scheduled to arrive May 7.