Water & Drought

California water politics could get choppier with new House bill

A view of the receding waterline from the east end of Folsom lake on Wednesday afternoon, October 14, 2015.
A view of the receding waterline from the east end of Folsom lake on Wednesday afternoon, October 14, 2015. jvillegas@sacbee.com

A Sacramento Valley Democrat revealed plans on Tuesday for a big new California water bill that likely will upset some of his colleagues and potentially affect water politics in the U.S. capital.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said his proposal would provide for new dams, spur water transfers and fund emergency drought aid.

“I want to lay down a marker,” Garamendi said in an interview Tuesday evening, adding that “we can stake steps to address the drought immediately, and to take long-term measures.”

Garamendi’s bill will mirror legislation introduced two weeks ago by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, which was welcomed as a positive step forward by Central Valley farmers. Spanning 184 pages, the Feinstein package was priced at $1.3 billion.

Garamendi’s companion effort, which he said he would introduce soon, was likewise greeted with cautious optimism by some.

Feinstein said in a statement that she was “pleased” that Garamendi is offering a companion to her bill, which she added “candidly is the best we can do at this time” given the circumstances.

“If he is going to introduce a bill, then I’m encouraged,” Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, said in an interview Tuesday. “It shows there are reasonable people out there that want to compromise.”

Birmingham is joining Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, and others testifying Wednesday at a House water and power subcommittee hearing intended, in part, to make the case for California water legislation.

I look forward to working with Congressman Garamendi and others in the House and Senate to get a bill passed and signed into law.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

But the hearing, like Garamendi’s and Feinstein’s legislation, also reveals the myriad unresolved conflicts that have stymied previous efforts to address the state’s drought. House Democrats who represent the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been particularly concerned about measures sought by farmers south of the Delta, like those in the 600,000-acre Westlands district.

Until now, Northern California Democrats have been united in their resistance to Republican water bills and in their parallel concern about what Feinstein might offer in compromise. Garamendi’s move suggests some cracks in that regional unity, which in turn suggests new political complications ahead.

“Given this legislation’s similarities to its Senate companion, I remain deeply concerned with the operational language and the detrimental effects that diverting more water could have on the health of the Delta’s fragile ecosystem and the families, farmers, and economies of the region,” Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, said Tuesday.

Some of the Democrats worry that anything that moves legislation along to a House and Senate conference will result in bad deal, dictated by the Republicans who control both bodies. Last year, House Republicans tapped Garamendi to negotiate with as lawmakers sought a compromise package, but the talks did not succeed.

“We’ve been playing defense,” Garamendi said. “I want to develop a discussion in the House about good ideas for legislation.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10