Politics & Government

Next step for water bill up in air

Houseboats are docked in low water at Lake Shasta’s Bay Bridge resort near Redding.
Houseboats are docked in low water at Lake Shasta’s Bay Bridge resort near Redding. The Associated Press

Late Thursday morning, while the Capitol Hill spotlight was pointed elsewhere, three Northern California congressmen paid a quiet call on the state’s junior Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer.

They wanted to talk water.

For upward of 40 minutes, in a room near the Senate floor, Democratic Reps. Mike Thompson, George Miller and Jared Huffman sounded an alarm about water legislation coming quickly down the pipe.

The private meeting preceded, but did not instigate, the unexpected end to the water bill negotiations, led by California’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republicans in the House of Representatives. It took place even as House Republican staff members believed they were within days of finishing legislation addressing California’s drought.

Now, with Feinstein’s surprise decision Thursday afternoon to call a halt and restart talks in January with a more open process, officials and advocates must assess what went wrong, what went right and what comes next.

“I deeply believe the people want both parties to work together, and that is the only way we will be able to enact water legislation,” Feinstein said. “It’s my hope that groups critical of this effort will strive to be productive rather than destructive.”

A California water bill could take many forms.

A version passed by the House in February would authorize new water-storage projects on the Upper San Joaquin River and elsewhere, limit certain environmental protections for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and remove wild-and-scenic protections from a half mile of the Merced River in order to potentially expand McClure Reservoir, among other provisions.

A Senate version passed in May was far smaller in scope.

The immediate next step will be taken by House Republicans, some of whom felt the rug had been yanked out from underneath them just as they were 98 percent done. They worry that by the time Congress acts next year, another drought-ridden growing season will have passed.

“This is a crisis,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said.

With Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy helping to control the House floor as majority leader, anxious GOP lawmakers could try several maneuvers. Staff members for California Republicans met Friday morning in McCarthy’s spacious Capitol office to plot strategy.

They could, for instance, try passing a stand-alone bill before the Dec. 11 adjournment, perhaps reflecting all or part of what’s been negotiated so far. That would make a statement and, at the least, set a foundation for next year. It would also face certain Senate resistance.

House Republicans could also try tacking a California water measure onto an omnibus appropriations bill, but this traditional method of hitching a ride on must-pass legislation is complicated by the broader uncertainties about what an unhappy Congress is willing to pass.

“I suspect they are going to try to do something,” Thompson said, but “it’s going to be tough.”

The more likely outcome of legislating next year, Feinstein said, will proceed under “regular order.” In part, this could mean hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee under its new Republican chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Behind the scenes this year, Murkowski already has helped Feinstein move negotiations along.

The regular order now invoked by Feinstein might also mean bringing more constituencies into the room where the deals are getting cut.

“I want all the stakeholders at the table, and I want it to be science-driven,” Thompson said.

Huffman, who formerly chaired the water, parks and wildlife panel while in the state Assembly, added Friday that “it’s a chance for a fresh start, to do things in a more deliberative, transparent manner.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006.