Politics & Government

House moves on California water bills, but toward what end?

Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, checks the snowpack depth while performing a snow survey near Echo Summit, Calif., on March 30, 2016. The survey showed the snowpack at about 95 percent of normal for this site at that time of year.
Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, checks the snowpack depth while performing a snow survey near Echo Summit, Calif., on March 30, 2016. The survey showed the snowpack at about 95 percent of normal for this site at that time of year. AP

The House of Representatives passed yet another set of controversial California water provisions Wednesday, sending a political signal and, perhaps, putting pressure on the Senate.

Important differences, though, still split the state, and lawmakers have yet to show they can get out of their respective trenches and resolve them. For now, a final deal seems far off.

“We can’t wait any longer,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale. “It’s time we end the rhetoric.”

In a tactical maneuver, House Republicans on Wednesday considered California water language on two separate bills. One thrust effectively added a 174-page California water bill to an unrelated energy package.

The California water provisions introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, would repeal an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program and replace it with something smaller. It directs the sale of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River to local water districts and speeds studies of five potential storage projects. It also mandates pumping water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“We’re not trying to steal from other communities,” Valadao said. “I think there’s a lot of room to compromise, and I’d appreciate the opportunity.”

By 241-178, the House approved the broader 1,000-plus-page energy package, which included the California water language along with provisions covering everything from renewable energy to natural gas exports. It now must be reconciled with the Senate’s version, amid continuing concerns from Northern California lawmakers.

“The provisions included in this bill will pit one region of our great state against another instead of providing a balanced long-term solution,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.

Advancing on a separate flank, GOP lawmakers Wednesday pushed ahead on a fiscal 2017 energy and water appropriations bill that also includes some of the controversial California water language sought by Central Valley farmers.

Communities in my district have been suffering because of a lack of action in this House.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

The House, in a 169-247 vote, first fended off an effort by Reps. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, and John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, to strip the California water provisions from the energy and water funding measure.

“We should not be using an appropriations bill to ram through misguided policies that reward a few powerful stakeholders at the expense of others,” McNerney said during House debate.

The White House Office of Management and Budget this week added that it “strongly opposes” ending the San Joaquin River restoration, and it blasted “several highly problematic provisions that undercut the Endangered Species Act.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, countered that “we are planning for the future (and) planning for those years that you won’t have the big snowpack.” One California Democrat, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, sided with 100 percent of House Republicans in defeating McNerney’s amendment.

The House was expected to approve the overall energy and water measure by Thursday.

The dual moves this week push the California water policies into two separate negotiating arenas, where selected House and Senate members will work out their differences; often behind closed doors. A third possibility is to include the California provisions in a multi-state Western package, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein hopes to prevail.

“The Senate can no longer ignore it,” McCarthy said during House debate. “They need to come to the table and negotiate with us in conference.”

Each legislative vehicle has different merits, for those hoping to board them.

The energy policy bill would impose permanent changes, while the energy and water appropriations bill would last only through fiscal 2017. Some influential lawmakers might resist packing non-energy measures onto the energy bill. The appropriations bill has its own limits, as well, but it is certain to pass in order to keep the federal government operating.

“Here we are again,” Garamendi said during the House debate.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

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