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As California water wars heat up, GOP congressmen say there's no real shortage

WASHINGTON As the politics of water grow more intense on Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock is skeptical that there's really a shortage in California, even though the governor has declared a drought emergency.

"Don't forget we have the most water-rich region in the state," said McClintock, a newcomer on the House Natural Resources Committee, who represents California's 4th Congressional District. "And yet our communities are in drought alerts, not because of a shortage of water, but because of water that the environmental regulations allow us to use."

It is becoming a common refrain for some Republicans in Washington: California's drought is human-made and could be resolved easily if government focused more on people, less on smelt.

Republican Rep. Wally Herger of California's 2nd District called it a "regulatory drought" that has been intensified by the Endangered Species Act.

And Republican Rep. George Radanovich of California's 19th District assailed "the draconian regulations that turn simple fish into the worshipful gods of the environmental community" while ignoring the rights of people.

"We need the government to protect the safety and happiness of people, not fish," he said.

As Congress considers whether to ease federal pumping restrictions in response to California's situation, there are signs that patience is wearing thin.

On Friday, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia went so far as to call for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's resignation.

"When a government can't provide the people access to a reliable source of water, it has failed," said Nunes. "This government has utterly failed, and Governor Schwarzenegger should resign from office."

Lester Snow, director of California's Department of Water Resources and a Schwarzenegger appointee, called Nunes' statement "ridiculous" and said such talk "comes from people who have not been helpful" in responding to the state's water crisis.

"Instead of people throwing darts or making statements, we need help," Snow said. "And that's what we expect from Congress, and that's what we expect from the new administration."

On Tuesday, the state launched a "Save Our Water" public education program (you can read about it at www.saveourH2O.org), and the governor urged all Californians to participate.

"With a drought, court-ordered water restrictions and an increasing population, the time for action is now," Schwarzenegger said. "Making sure Californians have the water we need to keep our economy strong and our people working has never been more critical.

"This is what the 'Save Our Water' campaign is all about, and I encourage all Californians to be a part of the solution."

Among the ideas: Every California household should save 20 gallons of water a day for 20 days as a way to respond to the state's drought emergency. Suggestions include filling your bathtub halfway or less, turning off the water when brushing your teeth, reducing lawn watering and running the dishwasher only when it's full.

"We're at a point in California where saving water helps save jobs," Snow said.

McClintock is not impressed with the state's approach.

"The great leaders of the past recognized that government's responsibility was to produce an abundance of water," he said. "There's only so much that people can cut back before it begins to have a dramatic impact on our economy, starting with agriculture. These are ways to manage a shortage that has been artificially created by government regulation and obstruction of new water projects."

McClintock called for a "top-to-bottom review" of all environmental regulations that he said are now consuming half of the state's water supply. And he said that easing federal pumping restrictions is "absolutely essential," adding: "The question comes down to a very simple choice between people and fish."

Many Democrats in Congress say they would oppose efforts to ease pumping restrictions.

"Easing up on the pump restrictions at this point would only speed the rate at which the Delta is failing," said Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento. "Why would we do that?"

Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents parts of Yolo County and the coastal north state, said he understands the frustration of farmers who are facing tough times because of drought conditions. But he said easing the pumping restrictions would not make sense.

"For the last three years, fishing families in my district and up and down the states of California and Oregon have faced similar problems because the salmon fishing seasons have been canceled due to drought and poor water management," he said. "If you ease federal pump restrictions, you will conversely place additional hardship on the fishing and farming families of California and Oregon. Before we start changing the plumbing of the Delta, we need to make sure there's a strong management strategy in place so there's a clear path forward."

One thing that would help California, Snow said, is more money from Washington.

The Obama administration already is promising to send $260 million in stimulus funds to California to help alleviate the drought.

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              Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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