GOP pushes California drought bill Democrats call irresponsible

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

California congressional Republicans escalated the anti-drought pressure Wednesday, introducing an ambitious California water bill that includes controversial provisions immediately dismissed by the state’s two Democratic senators.

Authored by San Joaquin Valley lawmakers, but backed by the state’s united GOP House delegation, the far-reaching water package would repeal a San Joaquin River restoration program, lengthen irrigation contracts and cap the delivery of water for environmental purposes, among many other provisions.

And within hours of its introduction, the bill also incited bad blood, harsh words and doubts about its long-term prospects.

“It’s a comprehensive bill,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s what we have to do to fix the state’s water problem.”

Freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif. took the lead and joined with Nunes and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy in crafting the new legislation, following their failed effort earlier this week to add California water language to a big farm bill.

“I, along with my Central Valley colleagues, will do everything in my power to ensure a real solution at the federal level.” Valadao said in a statement.

But the new legislation, dubbed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, also goes much further than the earlier House language proposed at the last minute for the farm bill, which had already raised Senate hackles.

The previous House water language, for instance, would have temporarily halted through 2015 a program to restore San Joaquin River water flows and salmon population below Friant Dam. The new House bill would permanently repeal the river restoration and replace it with something significantly smaller.

Opponents say the Republican efforts would undermine endangered species, threaten crucial habitats and wreck delicate compromises reached in the past, all while steering more Northern California water to San Joaquin Valley farms.

“The Republicans continue to play politics with this tragic drought rather than bringing us all together to address this problem,” said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Boxer’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, voiced her own skepticism about the House effort that so far has remained confined to Republican ranks. Feinstein is generally considered closer than Boxer to Valley agricultural interests, and she has brokered past California water deals, making her role particularly crucial.

“Today’s bill is another irresponsible proposal that puts politics ahead of the needs of California, and candidly, it’s very disappointing,” Feinstein said in a statement, adding that the House bill “is disingenuous, it is irresponsible and it is dangerous.”

Feinstein has indicated that she plans to introduce her own California water bill, but has not yet revealed details. She has, however, previously made clear her commitment to the full San Joaquin River restoration program, which she shepherded through the Senate.

“Instead of working productively for solutions, Valley Republicans tossed aside their own new ideas and returned to the broken ideas they have championed for nearly three years,” Feinstein said.

The new, approximately 68-page House bill closely resembles legislation authored by Nunes during the last Congress, reinforced by several additional provisions. The prior bill passed the House in early 2012 on a largely party line vote, and over the objections of most Northern California legislators. It then sank without a trace in the Senate.

House Republicans say they intend to pass the new water bill with dispatch, possibly as part of other legislation, and thereby force the Senate to respond or offer an alternative. With the leadership backing of McCarthy, and House Speaker John Boehner’s recent public pronouncements in arid Bakersfield about the California drought, the House tracks appear greased.

“Our goal is to move it as quickly as possible,” Nunes said Wednesday. “We’re in an emergency situation.”

A bill opponent, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said in an interview Wednesday he will “begin working as feverishly” as possible to resist the bill that he nonetheless expects to see on the House floor next week.

“It is, frankly, irresponsible to undertake a complete restructuring of California water without a hearing, and within a week of it being introduced,” Garamendi said, adding that “it affects every Californian.”

The last time the House or Senate held a hearing on similar California water proposals was in June 2011, when water conditions were not as dire. Since then, California Gov. Jerry Brown has formally declared a state drought

Some of the new House bill provisions would unsettle the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a 1992 law loathed by many Valley farmers. The new bill, for instance, would restore 40-year irrigation contracts for CVP customers and effectively mandate their renewal. The 1992 law limited irrigation contracts to 25 years and leaves open the possibility they might not be renewed.

The new bill would streamline the usual environmental reviews required for California water projects, and cap at 800,000 acre-feet the amount of water devoted under the 1992 CVP law to fish, wildlife and habitat.

Other provisions would explicitly scale back current environmental protections. The new bill, for instance, would for the first time roll back wild-and-scenic river status on a portion of the Merced River, in order to allow increased storage in Lake McClure. In another controversial proposal that’s been floated before, the bill would allow federal officials to count hatchery spawned salmon in determining whether the fish need federal endangered species protection.

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau