Politics & Government

House Republicans reopen the bidding on California water bill

In this photo taken Monday, May 18, 2015, Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed on land he farms near Stockton, Calif.
In this photo taken Monday, May 18, 2015, Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed on land he farms near Stockton, Calif. AP

House Republicans intent on storing more California water and redirecting it to farms have resurrected some familiar and controversial ideas, this time as part of a must-pass spending bill.

The provisions, including a freeze on an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program and mandated pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, are now folded into a Fiscal 2017 energy and water appropriations bill. It’s a new tactical move, designed for leverage.

“Once passed by the House, (this) offers the Senate another chance to consider this important legislation,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said Tuesday, adding that “our senators failed to meet the moment” in previous sessions.

The provisions included in the 82-page energy and water bill are a familiar wish list, largely reflecting previous California water legislative packages that have failed to clear Congress over the past four years. There are some differences, though.

It is the duty of our state’s leaders to pursue every possible avenue of relief for our struggling communities to get the water we desperately need.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy

Previous bills, for instance, would have ended the San Joaquin River salmon and habitat restoration program altogether and replaced it with something smaller. The new language, reflecting the limits of an annual appropriations bill, would simply block spending for the next fiscal year.

In a similar vein, previous bills would have directed sale of the New Melones Dam to local water districts. The new language is less ambitious, directing the federal Bureau of Reclamation to work with local water districts to increase New Melones storage opportunities.

“Congress cannot make it rain but we can enact policies that expand our water infrastructure, allow for more water conveyance, and utilize legitimate science to ensure a reliable water supply for farmers and families,” California’s House Republicans said in a joint statement.

California officials announced Wednesday, March 30, 2016, that snowpack levels near Lake Tahoe stand at roughly 95 percent of the historical average, a welcome respite from years of drought.

The package unveiled Tuesday is all-but certain to pass the Republican-controlled House, as have previous California-related bills before it. Unhappy over provisions that include the mandatory Delta pumping for the benefit of San Joaquin Valley farms, Northern California Democrats will be opposing the measure.

“It’s inexcusable that today some of my colleagues introduced provisions that do nothing to actually address the water shortage, but instead just pits one area of the state against others,” Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, said Tuesday.

The bigger test will come in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has joined Republicans in calling for more Delta pumping but has also negotiated for continued environmental protections. Feinstein’s California colleague, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, has repeatedly voiced concerns about the GOP approach, as has the Obama administration.

Weak local rainfall this spring and summer in Southern California show why California's drought is far from over.

Feinstein said Tuesday she hopes to include $100 million for drought relief in the Senate’s version of the energy and water appropriations bill set for subcommittee markup Wednesday. In theory, this will set the stage for a House and Senate conference later this year to iron out differences.

Separately, Feinstein said she hopes to move a stand-alone drought bill that would ease limits on water transfers south of the Delta, but not mandate specific pumping levels. Boxers has not taken a position on the bill, which also would compel completion of feasibility studies for storage project.

“My focus is on getting the full bill that was introduced in February through the Senate,” Feinstein said Tuesday.

In California's fourth year of drought, officials are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfill their legal and contractual obligations to distribute water. Following a controversial decision to supplement water flows along the Trinity River ou