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California water bill: Here’s why it’s so hard for Congress to pass

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WASHINGTON —Five years into California’s latest drought, a major water bill compromise can seem as far away as ever.

The perennial conflict, often summed up as fish vs. farms, subtly surfaced again Tuesday at a key Senate hearing. A Western growers’ advocate pleaded for relief, a Trout Unlimited leader urged caution and lawmakers insisted on optimism while conceding the tough road ahead.

“This bill is the product of two years of work (and) 28 drafts,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., adding that her legislation “can produce real water in a manner consistent with the Endangered Species Act.”

The 100-minute hearing before the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee, part of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was the first this year on Feinstein’s latest California water bill. Four other Western water bills were also reviewed, foreshadowing a Senate strategy of bundling together a West-wide measure attractive to multiple lawmakers

“The final details of this legislative package remain in flux,” acknowledged Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

An alternative Capitol Hill scenario envisions House of Representatives and Senate negotiators sliding California water provisions into must-pass spending legislation. Either option requires lawmakers to find a vehicle on which they can reconcile their differences.

Working out that conflict can get hard.

The Senate bill introduced by Feinstein in February increases limits on water transfers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but does not mandate specific pumping levels. It authorizes $1.3 billion for desalination, water recycling, storage and grants. The money provided includes $600 million for projects that could include constructing Temperance Flat or Sites Reservoir, in the Sacramento Valley, and raising Shasta Dam. 

“On balance, we are confident and comfortable with this measured approach,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan Lopez said.

Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents 440 water and irrigation districts in the state, likewise offered support, adding that Feinstein’s legislation “moves the federal government into closer alignment with key California water policies.”

At the same time, Lopez cautioned that “there is increased litigation risk” under some provisions of the Feinstein bill, and further acknowledged that “concerns voiced by other stakeholders . . . have resulted in some controversy.”

Laura Ziemer, senior counsel and water policy adviser for Trout Unlimited, similarly warned that part of the Feinstein proposal “seems likely to fuel more litigation and conflict.”

The Senate subcommittee hearing itself, while laying the procedural foundation for legislation to advance, did nothing to resolve any of the conflicts. No more than one or two senators on the 13-member committee were generally present during the hearing, and of some 18 questions asked of the witnesses, only two touched on California.

Shortly before the hearing, Walnut Grove, California, Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat, introduced similar legislation in the House. Garamendi’s move mirroring Feinstein splits Northern California Democrats, who have often stuck together in sounding alarms about farmer-oriented water legislation.

While Garamendi said his companion bill would accomplish “vital tasks,” including providing “short-term” relief as well as “long-term” infrastructure, John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association declared the legislation “would be deadly to salmon.” The seriousness of the concerns was hinted at by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who said any bill “must avoid negative impacts on our fisheries.” 

A competing Republican-authored bill passed by the House last year would repeal an ambitious San Joaquin River salmon-and-habitat restoration program and replace it with something smaller. It also directs the sale of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River to local water districts. 

The House bill introduced by Hanford Rep. David Valadao, a Republican, also pushes completion of studies of five potential water-storage projects, including construction of a new dam on the Upper San Joaquin River, and it mandates pumping levels to steer more water to farms south of the Delta.

“The House has passed a bill that I don’t believe, candidly, can pass the Senate,” Feinstein said.

This article appeared on the McClatchy website May 17. 

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