Feinstein freezes out Northern Californians from water talks

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. AP

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Republicans have been secretly negotiating drought relief legislation that could severely alter California water policy. She should know better.

Any legislation on the topic of water would have far-reaching implications, and ought to receive a full public airing before a congressional vote.

California’s senior senator is negotiating with Central Valley representatives and agencies that rely on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and is shutting out House members who represent the Delta and Northern California.

The fear among environmentalists and Northern California congressional members, including Feinstein’s fellow Democrats, is that the legislation would override environmental protections so more water could be pumped south to Central Valley farmers and Southern California residents.

They worry that a bill could be pushed through Congress without committee hearings, possibly this week or the week after Thanksgiving. That is no way to make policy, especially when the varied interests of Californians are at stake.

Michael Doyle of the McClatchy Washington Bureau and Mark Grossi of The Fresno Bee reported that only a few congressmen and staff members have seen the documents stamped “confidential draft language, do not distribute.” California’s Republican House members received a briefing last week.

Feinstein issued a statement through her press secretary saying that “the plan has always been to seek broad input.”

“We expect to have draft legislation ready for public comment soon, at which time public input will be sought,” she said.

That sort of top-down manner of legislating might work on national security matters, but will make it difficult for Feinstein to generate trust from the individuals who are not at the table but have a legitimate stake in California’s water future.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said in an interview that the opaque process is “wrong. It’s not the way to do this.” He cited concerns that the legislation could damage the Delta and the fishing industry, and water down the Endangered Species Act.

While Garamendi and other Northern California congressional members are frozen out of the talks, Tom Birmingham, the general manager of Westlands Water District, which depends on water pumped from Northern California, has a seat at the negotiating table.

Westlands clearly has an interest in any legislation. Westlands farmers received no Delta water allocations this year. But so do Northern Californians, including environmentalists and members of the fishing industry.

There is a fundamental imbalance if interest groups and Republicans have a seat at the table but the congressional member who represents the Delta is left out.

If Sen. Feinstein won’t embrace an open debate on such critical issues, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who will remain chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee through the lame duck session, ought to stand up and object.