The House today
approved an ambitious California water bill that favors
farmers, splits the state and pressures the Senate.
In a highly partisan vote, the Republican-controlled
House approved the legislation which would lengthen
irrigation contracts, override state law and boost
deliveries to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin
Delta. Most dramatically, the bill replaces one San
Joaquin River restoration plan with something far less
"Flushing water into San Francisco Bay is not helping to
recover species, and people are suffering needlessly,"
said bill author Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, adding
later that his bill "gives (water) reliability, not only
to farms but to the environment."
Approved by a 246-175 margin, the bill marked one of the
few times the full House has confronted California's
water woes. The nearly five-hour debate, though, also
underscored how the bill has magnified regional and
"This is a power grab," said Rep. John Garamendi,
D-Walnut Grove. "It's a water grab, and it's an
imposition of the federal government over the state."
The bill faces an uncertain future. Democratic Sens.
Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both oppose the
legislation, as does the Brown administration in
Sacramento, and the Obama administration has threatened
a presidential veto.
"Senator Boxer and I will do everything we can to make
sure it won't pass," Feinstein said, "and I don't
believe it will pass."
At the same time, Feinstein said she would "look at it
and see" if individual provisions might merit separate
consideration. Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, one of only 10
House Democrats to vote for the bill, stressed that
Feinstein's participation will be essential for anything
Joined by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and House
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Nunes
introduced the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water
Reliability Act last year in response to repeated severe
cutbacks in irrigation water deliveries south of the
The legislation returns federal irrigation contracts to
40 years, rather than the 25-year limit imposed in 1992.
It eases water transfers and preempts strict state laws
that might impose stricter environmental standards.
Though the water is California's, the controversy
crosses borders. In a rare floor speech, House Speaker
John Boehner praised the legislation; a sign it could
have political legs. From the other side, suggesting
broader resistance, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon state
officials warned about the dangers of preempting state
"This direct weakening of the deference to state water
law is unacceptable," Wyoming State Engineer Patrick
Tyrrell wrote. "It poses a threat to water rights and
water administration across the Western United States."
In hopes of reassuring Western officials, lawmakers
included extraordinary language declaring the federal
preemption of state laws in California would not be a
precedent elsewhere. Skeptics doubt this language can
make the precedent simply disappear.
Following extensive negotiations, from which House
Democrats say they were excluded, GOP lawmakers further
included language intended to assure Sacramento Valley
residents that they won't lose water to San Joaquin
"This bill places senior water right holders in a safe
and secure position," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk
Grove, the chair of the House water and power
But Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena retorted that
crafting the bill "in the proverbial backroom" made any
GOP assurances shaky.
In what Nunes calls the "lynchpin" of the legislation,
the bill blocks a 2009 law intended to help restore
water flows and Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River
below Friant Dam. The bill calls for about 100,000
acre-feet of water to flow below the dam annually, less
than half of what the current law demands; the result
would be hospitable for some fish species, but not
Scaling back the river restoration could reduce federal
spending by at least $190 million, according to the
Congressional Budget Office.
"This is our priority in the House," Denham said of the
overall bill. "The Senate may not agree with us, but
we'll never know unless we have the debate."
Rep. Grace Napolitano of Santa Fe Springs, the senior
Democrat on the House water and power panel, led other
Democrats in unsuccessful efforts to amend the bill.
Some, like a failed Napolitano amendment to end water
subsidies, seemed designed to strike a symbolic chord.
Some 200 farm, water and business organizations have
endorsed the bill, ranging from the Westlands Water
District to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Other water
districts and some cities are more leery, particularly
about the San Joaquin River provision.
All of the cities, counties and farm bureaus fully
endorsing the bill come from south of the Delta. No city
or county north of the Delta endorsed the bill, though
some Sacramento Valley water districts did.
"It frustrates me to see the division on the House floor
that has politicized the issue," Costa said.
ON THE WEB
Rep. Devin Nunes website
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