Capitol Alert

Deal could avoid shutdown, but California wildfire and water measures have to wait

Congressional leaders reached a short-term spending deal Wednesday that effectively punts most of the contentious funding decisions into the new year.

That includes the question of whether to extend a federal law designed to deliver more Northern California water south, which has become a factor in the Delta water-sharing agreement reached earlier this month.

Congressional aides said federal wildfire recovery funding will have to wait until the new year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday morning that the Senate would vote on a “simple measure that will continue government funding into February.” More precisely, the spending bill will fund the government through Feb. 8.

Democratic leaders in Congress signaled Wednesday they would support the measure, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign it.

Barring any last-minute surprises, that will end the threat of a partial government shutdown over the Christmas holiday.

But as McConnell noted on the Senate floor, “there will be important unfinished business left in front of us and we’ll owe it to the American people to finally tackle it” in 2019.

The Kentucky Republican primarily was referring to funding for a border wall, an issue where the president and congressional Democrats remain far apart. But the temporary spending deal also leaves a myriad of other issues unresolved.

California congressional aides said it will not include the billions in funding the state has requested to help those affected by 2018’s disastrous wildfires.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s office estimated in November that recovery efforts underway in Butte County and Southern California will require more than $9 billion from the federal government. Those funds are likely to be included in a 2019 disaster supplemental spending bill, instead.

FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other federal agencies have plenty of funds to cover recovery expenses until then, one aide said, so the delay should not affect local recovery efforts.

Also out: an extension of expiring provisions in the 2016 Water Infrastructure for Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the House majority leader, had been pushing this month to include in the fiscal year 2019 spending legislation. Brown also endorsed the move.

The legislation would make hundreds of millions of federal dollars available for California water storage projects as well as desalination and water recycling programs. It also gives the federal government’s Central Valley Project and the State Water Project more operational flexibility to increase water deliveries at certain times of year to the south state through the massive pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, leaving less water in the system for Chinook salmon and other endangered species.

The ability to pump more water was a key demand of local water agencies in the negotiations on a water flow agreement for the lower San Joaquin River watershed. The California government reached a tentative series of deals with local irrigation districts, urban water suppliers and the federal government to reduce water diversion and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars in cash for habitat improvement projects to boost the ailing fish.

Those deals would not, however, keep as much water for fish as the state Water Resources Control Board has proposed in a new allocation plan. And for some environmental groups, it was not enough.

“It appears that California’s salmon, thousands of fishing jobs, and the health of the Bay Delta estuary are the sacrificial lambs in these series of agreements between the Trump and the Brown administrations,” Doug Obegi, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Bee in an email last week.

Delaying a WIIN Act extension further complicates the outlook for those compromises, although there will be no immediate impact on the pumping guidelines. Those provisions are in place through 2020, per the original WIIN Act. There’s no guarantee, however, that the language will make it in the next spending bill.

Feinstein and McCarthy — who joined forces to pass the original WIIN Act in 2016 — hold powerful posts in Congress. The bill also has support from California Democratic Reps. Jim Costa and John Garamendi and incoming Rep. T.J. Cox, as well as from Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, a senior appropriator.

But many of the same environmental groups that oppose the water flow deals are also against extending the WIIN Act due to the pumping provisions, and they have significant sway among Democrats in Washington.

California’s other Democratic senator, Kamala Harris, opposes the proposal, as well. And Brown, a key champion, is leaving the governor’s mansion at the end of the year. His successor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, is more skeptical about some of Brown’s water priorities, most notably his proposal to build two huge tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Newsom has not weighed in on the WIIN Act extension.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
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