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Can Congress pass a California water bill?

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California’s two Democratic senators remain somewhat out of sync over proposed water legislation, underscoring its ambiguous future on the eve of a big hearing.

Four months after Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s introduction of her latest California water package, Sen. Barbara Boxer is still evaluating the 185-page bill. Her wait-and-see attitude hints at complex undercurrents, as she supports some parts of Feinstein’s bill while seeking more feedback about other parts. 


“I think many of us feel the same way as Sen. Boxer,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “We appreciate that Sen. Feinstein has reached out and taken some new ideas that she’s rolled into that bill . . . but it still contains this very problematic Delta operations piece.”

Feinstein’s legislation will be one of five Western water bills considered Tuesday by the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee. It’s the first Senate hearing since last October on a drought-inspired California water bill.

“It’s vital that other senators understand how harmful this historic drought has been for California and what our comprehensive bill would do to address it,” Feinstein said.

The hearing could thus foreshadow the bill’s path to the Senate floor and eventual negotiations with the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, which passed its own version last year. Already, the hearing’s schedule reveals one possible scenario for how the action might unfold.

The four other bills being heard Tuesday include measures for Colorado, Arizona, Montana and Nevada, among other Western states. The chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, has previously stressed her interest in shaping a West-wide package rather than passing single-state bills one at a time.

“Reliable access to water is fundamental to Western economies, and these measures provide a variety of tools to fight water shortages,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican whose legislation spans 142 pages.

Another potential route for California-specific language is inclusion in an annual energy and water appropriations bill. The Senate on Thursday passed its version of the annual funding bill. A House version includes many California provisions, some of them controversial, and House and Senate negotiators will eventually have to write a final bill.

Feinstein’s California-oriented water bill being reviewed Tuesday is her third try.

It eases 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. It compels completion of feasibility studies for storage projects such as Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River.

The GOP-authored House bill, authored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, sets up a more explicit conflict between farmers and environmentalists with provisions that include mandated pumping levels to farms south of the Delta.

Money is another point of conflict, as House Republicans might resist the kind of explicit spending entailed by Feinstein’s $1.3 billion bill. Feinstein, in turn, has problems with the House Republicans’ repeated proposals to end an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program.

Further complicating the picture, Feinstein’s bill has driven a wedge among Northern California Democrats, who have often hung together in opposition to water bills they deem dangerous to the Delta. In February, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, endorsed Feinstein’s effort, which includes support for the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County.

“This legislation addresses our immediate water challenges while preparing our state for future droughts,” Garamendi wrote.

Other Democrats, though, remain worried about some facets of Feinstein’s bill.

“Her provisions on operations still remain deeply troubling because they benefit one California region over another,” Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, said Friday.

This article appeared on the McClatchy website May 13. 

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