Politics & Government

California’s drought may be easing, but fight over water persists

Jeffrey Sutton, general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, urges action on California water at a House hearing on Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
Jeffrey Sutton, general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, urges action on California water at a House hearing on Tuesday, July 12, 2016. McClatchy

California Republicans are spreading out their bets in their annual effort to steer more water to the state’s farmers.

In the absence of negotiations, such tactics matter most right now.

Framed by a hearing Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives will vote this week on whether to retain farmer-friendly California water provisions in an Interior Department funding bill for the fiscal year that begins in October. Whether this vehicle succeeds where others have failed will probably be known only after the November elections.

“California is at yet another crossroads,” Ara Azhderian, water policy administrator for the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, told a House panel Tuesday morning. “The decisions that will be made in coming weeks and months will have impacts probably for years.”

Azhderian’s district serves water users in eight counties, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. His pleas were matched Tuesday by a counterpart with the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, which serves growers in four counties north of the Delta.

“We’ve got to start working together to help our farmers, and our fish,” said the canal authority’s general manager, Jeffrey P. Sutton, adding that “in this California drought, everyone has suffered.”

Billed as a hearing on “changing demands and water supply uncertainty in California,” the 80-minute session seemed a familiar exercise, although the witnesses brought unique expertise to bear. The seven Republican lawmakers and two Democrats who participated offered familiar questions and statements that will be heard again later this week on the House floor.

Despite many of the reservoirs being filled in 2016, CVP operations are running on the ragged edge, failing to fulfill the needs of its contractors or the authorized purposes of the project.

Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority General Manager Jeffrey P. Sutton

As part of the pending $32.1 billion bill that funds the Interior Department, Forest Service and other agencies, House Republicans have included myriad provisions from a California water bill introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

The mostly technical language blocks spending on an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program and includes directions for “operational flexibility,” designed to maximize the federal Central Valley Project’s water exports south of the Delta, among other provisions.

“The CVP is now operated with a stronger emphasis on managing flows for fish than for the millions of Californians who built it and rely upon it,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale.

Six amendments to be offered this week by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, would remove the California water provisions from the Interior Department funding bill. The amendments are doomed to fail in a House where Republicans dominate Democrats by 247-187, but the accompanying debate will allow lawmakers to air their views.

“Unfortunately, we are here once again wasting taxpayer dollars on a farce of a hearing to attack the Endangered Species Act and blame environmental protections for California’s drought,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Tuesday.

The House’s Interior Department funding bill is only the latest to include California water provisions, but getting something to stick in the absence of a mutually negotiated compromise has proved to be hard.

In May, the House approved some 174 pages’ worth of California water provisions as part of a 1,000-plus-page energy package. The House version must be reconciled with the Senate’s energy bill, which lacks the California water add-on.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, confirmed only on the condition of anonymity that Senate leaders had agreed to take out provisions that Obama would veto. This would cover the California water legislation, which previously attracted an administration veto threat.

Separately, GOP lawmakers tacked California water language onto a fiscal 2017 energy and water funding bill. It used to be the case that such appropriations bills were considered routine and must-pass, making them reliable vehicles.

Now, though, internal House Republican conflicts and intensified Capitol Hill partisanship have changed that calculus. Stymied GOP leaders failed to pass the energy and water bill in May, and it’s still stuck.

“If we do not find a way to work together in a more coordinated fashion that takes into account and respects all water needs,” Sutton warned, “I fear we are headed for a future where both the Delta smelt and agriculture are extinct in California.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10