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Senate Democrats wade into California drought debate, offer legislation

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at 3:59 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at 4:09 p.m.

— California’s drought has now fully captivated Congress, with the introduction Tuesday of a Senate water bill that counters one passed by the House of Representatives last week.

The two bills differ significantly, and the legislative end game remains murky. But combined with an upcoming presidential visit to the parched San Joaquin Valley, the introduction of the latest California water measure by its two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, propels the likelihood of Capitol Hill action.

“The House took its best shot,” Feinstein said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I hope they realize (ours) are specific actions that can work.”

Boxer added, in an implicit criticism of the competing House measure, that “the goal of this (Senate) bill is to bring us together to address this crisis, rather than divide us.”

The 31-page Senate measure introduced Tuesday offers $300 million in drought aid through a variety of programs. It tries to wring out more water for users, in part by requiring “flexibility” in how federal officials manage pumping through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It allows stricken water districts to delay their federal contract payments and speeds up federal decision-making on water supply projects.

“The bill does not waive the Endangered Species Act, or any other law,” Feinstein said. “It essentially adds increased flexibility to the system.”

The bill does, though, declare that the drought “fully satisfies” the requirements for initiating emergency procedures under the act and other environmental laws. It also waives the usual requirement that bills spell out how they’ll be paid for.

One Democrat who represents a Delta-area district, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., cautioned that it will “take time to understand what the implications are” if the bill passes.

The legislation goes beyond California’s borders, offering aid to farmers in Oregon’s Klamath Basin. This helped secure the immediate co-sponsorship of Oregon’s two senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. Other senators are invited in by the bill’s potential for providing of emergency aid to farmers and communities throughout the West

In another telling political signal, the Senate bill secured the support of Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest water district. In a statement issued within minutes of the Senate bill’s introduction, Westlands said it was “encouraged” by the bill that it said would “provide much needed relief” for water agencies. Meanwhile, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, John Laird, said the bill offers “common sense solutions” for the state.

“Drought hits farmers and ranchers first and hardest, so we support a bill that addresses the immediate needs of those facing critical water shortages,” added California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, a Modesto-area almond and walnut grower, as he offered his organization’s support.

The Senate proposal sidesteps a bill approved by the House on a largely party line 229-191 vote last Wednesday. Authored by GOP lawmakers, the House bill is opposed by the Obama administration and California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The 68-page House bill, for instance, authorizes, without federal funding, the construction of dams on the Upper San Joaquin River east of Fresno and in Colusa County, northwest of Sacramento. The House bill repeals an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, authorizes raising Shasta Dam and lengthens irrigation contracts to 40 years.

The shorter Senate bill includes none of those provisions.

Instead, the Senate bill, refined over the past several weeks with input from the state’s major water agencies, turns various technical dials. It directs that crucial “Cross Channel gates” in the Delta remain open to “the greatest extent possible.” Closing the gates protects migrating salmon; opening them can improve Delta water quality and facilitate water deliveries.

Until now, House Republicans have complained about seeming Senate indifference, while Democratic senators have considered the GOP’s proposals too extreme. Seen in this light, the Senate bill details may matter less than the fact that both sides of Congress have put forward bargaining positions.

Feinstein will be meeting Wednesday with Rep. David Valadao, D-Calif. to discuss the Senate proposal. Valadao is chief author of the House water bill, which is largely based on an earlier bill written by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

“I am encouraged by today’s events and hope that the legislative process will continue to move forward,” Valadao said.

Feinstein said she has not yet spoken to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to figure out the next step or its timing.

The drought spotlight will further intensify Friday, when President Barack Obama is scheduled to make his first presidential visit to Fresno. Trip details have not yet been made public, but lawmakers will take every opportunity to bend the president’s ear.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, for instance, revealed in an interview that he briefly filled Obama in on the California drought while escorting the president to the State of the Union speech last month.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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