California drought produces thirst for water – and political solutions

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

Big dams, bitter feuds and some political bombshells surface in a California water bill slated for lickety-split House approval next week.

One new dam would be authorized for the Upper San Joaquin River. Another would get a green light to store Sacramento River water at a new Sites Reservoir. The existing Shasta Dam, already the state’s seventh largest, could grow taller.

And all of that takes only one technical sentence, on page 20 of a 68-page bill the House is set to approve within days. There’s much more, in a bill whose rapid acceleration through the Republican-controlled House is spurred by California’s drought, as well as the forgoing of traditional congressional hearings and oversight.

“Families and farmers alike are not receiving the water they need to meet their basic, everyday needs,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif.

Entitled the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, the legislation introduced Wednesday may be the most dramatic federal redesign of California’s complex water network in a generation. Though its real-world prospects are highly uncertain, it definitely makes a political splash.

The bill unwinds key parts of a landmark 1992 law that directed more water to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It repeals an expensive San Joaquin River restoration program that Congress approved five years ago. It strips wild-and-scenic protections from a half-mile of the Merced River in order to potentially expand McClure Reservoir. It lengthens federal irrigation contracts and preempts some state law.

It’s also strongly opposed by the Brown administration in California, whose top natural resources official wrote House leaders Friday to say the bill “falsely holds the promise of water relief that cannot be delivered.”

“This is not a time to start an argument over water we don’t have,” Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird said in a telephone interview Friday. “It would be really helpful not to do something that pits one part of the state against another.”

But on Capitol Hill, the House bill amounts to a smash serve into the Senate’s court. The ball could return quickly, as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein indicated Friday she will introduce her own California water bill early next week. Some significant differences will separate the House and Senate versions, leading either to eventual compromise or ceaseless finger-pointing.

“The time for talk is over,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “It’s time for the Senate to join us in providing critical assistance to the people of California.”

Politically, the House bill divides the state.

Dozens of irrigation districts in California’s Central Valley supported a nearly identical bill in 2012, as did many Valley cities and counties south of the Delta, along with major farm and business organizations.

The cities of Sacramento and Stockton, though, joined with Yolo, Solano and Contra Costa counties, along with many environmental and fishing organizations, to oppose the prior House measure. The Obama administration said the prior bill would “unravel decades of work to forge consensus, solutions and settlements” on California water.

An essentially identical lineup, pro and con, can be expected for the new bill.

“The bill . . . is a political ploy in an election year that does nothing to solve the devastating drought facing the state,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.

The bill will almost certainly pass the House, probably by Thursday. Lawmakers have until Tuesday to propose amendments.

In a remarkable show of unity, all 15 California House Republicans are co-sponsors. Valadao, the freshman GOP lawmaker who is chief author of the bill, diligently rallied his colleagues when they were convening on the House floor prior to last Tuesday’s State of the Union address. House Speaker John Boehner, tellingly, endorsed the anti-drought efforts in a recent Bakersfield, Calif., appearance.

Eager to move fast, GOP lawmakers bypassed the normal legislative route through the House Natural Resources Committee. There have been no hearings this Congress on the bill.

“Candidly, it’s very disappointing,” Feinstein said, calling the House bill an “ugly example of politics as usual.”

Most of the text mimics a bill previously authored Nunes and passed by the House in early 2012. Valadao took the reins on the new bill in part because important parts directly affect his San Joaquin Valley district. Not coincidentally, showing leadership on water is also deemed potentially helpful for his first reelection campaign against a well-funded Democrat.

The House bill teems with technical details that can take time to sort out.

The water storage project authorizations, for instance, cite to arcane references like “sections…103(d)(1)(A)(iii) of Public Law 108–36” rather than common names such as Sites Reservoir or Temperance Flat, the project proposed for the Upper San Joaquin River. The authorizations themselves are a tricky matter, in that no federal funds are provided.

With Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat both estimated to cost upwards of $1 billion or more, it’s not clear what can get done using only state and local funds.

The bill repeals a San Joaquin River restoration program designed to increase water flows and restore salmon to the river below Friant dam. Since 2007, program managers have reported spending more than $100 million on the restoration effort. By some estimates, total costs could exceed $1 billion. The House bill would replace this with something cheaper and less expensive.

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau