Stormy seas ahead for the California water debate


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The California drought will soon expose the geographic, political, personal and institutional divisions that complicate meaningful congressional action.

Forget farmers versus environmentalists, that classic California plot. These divisions go deeper, and could easily kill the legislative fixes House Republicans vowed to make at a Bakersfield-area farm last week.

In the state’s Central Valley, the potential farmer-against-farmer conflict could pit East Side versus West Side and North versus South. On Capitol Hill, besides the never-ending clash between Republicans and Democrats, unresolved tensions divide House from Senate. One on one, bad blood divides certain key lawmakers.

“It’s probably going to be very difficult for Congress to respond,” Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said in an interview Friday, “but this crisis is so big that Congress has to try.”

The first try comes this week when GOP lawmakers will introduce California water legislation. Republicans have promised a bill to temporarily stop San Joaquin River restoration, keep the Sacramento-San Joaquin pumps operating and establish a special 10-member House and Senate committee.

Some key divisions in the minefield ahead include:

East Side vs. West Side

The proposal to temporarily halt restoration of San Joaquin River water flows and a salmon population below Friant Dam could exacerbate conflict between San Joaquin Valley farmers. Farmers on the east side, part of the Friant Water Users Authority, agreed to the ambitious river restoration program to settle a lawsuit filed in 1988.

The Friant farmers, holding a losing hand in court, subsequently lobbied for the river restoration program authorized by Congress in 2009. The new proposal to temporarily halt the river restoration program until 2015 thus puts the Friant water districts on the spot since they face legal obligations.

West Side farmers have periodically battled with those on the East Side over water. A big regional conflict this time could involve the so-called San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors who farm in the west-central region between Patterson and Mendota. The exchange contractors, among others, have grown openly skeptical of the river restoration program.

North vs. South

Farmers in different regions have different legal claims on river water. Proposals to secure additional water for farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can worry farmers north of the delta. Last Congress, a water bill introduced by a San Joaquin Valley lawmaker required lots of behind-the-scenes massaging to address Sacramento Valley concerns. Even then, it died in the Senate.

“It took more than a year of discussions and compromises in the 112th Congress to craft a bill that had the support of both Northern California water districts and Central Valley farmers,” Rep. Tom McClintock, the California Republican who chairs the House water and power subcommittee, noted in an e-mail Friday. The essential provision was an iron-clad protection of Northern California water rights, assuring that the only water sent south was surplus that would otherwise have been lost to the ocean. Such a provision will be absolutely essential in any future legislation.”

San Joaquin Valley lawmakers have asked their Sacramento Valley counterparts to craft language for the new bill that might ease potential concern.

Lawmaker vs. lawmaker

Some members of Congress simply don’t get along. Or, at the least, their past political histories complicate their ability to collaborate.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes and Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, for instance, represent neighboring San Joaquin Valley districts. While both draw campaign support from farmers, they clash in a tone that can sound irreconcilable. On the other hand, even if the members don’t collaborate closely, it’s hard to imagine Costa voting against an anti-drought bill.

“I hope to be able to support it once I have the opportunity to fully review the bill,” Costa said.

McClintock, chair of the key water panel in the House, ran in 2006 for lieutenant governor against Democrat John Garamendi. Garamendi won and now holds a House seat representing a delta-area district. Their tone was not congenial in committee and on the House floor during 2012 debate over a prior California water bill.

This lack of a personal rapport among members could intensify any opposition already arising from regional considerations.

“Sucking the delta dry is not the answer to California’s water issues,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., adding that the pending Republican proposal “will only create further discord.”

House vs. Senate

House Republicans have repeatedly complained about the Senate’s handling of California water legislation. A California water bill that passed the House by a 246 to 175 margin in February 2012 simply disappeared, and Nunes said “the Senate’s rejection of all House initiatives to end the crisis has now resulted in an emergency situation throughout California.”

Senators, in turn, bristle over the House’s aggressive and highly partisan edge. Only 10 Democrats voted for the GOP’s California water bill in 2012, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she is “concerned” that a new House water bill will follow the same pattern.

Some bicameral tension is inherent in Congress, where senators represent larger and more diverse populations than House members. Some comes from the specific players involved in California water. Tactically, some House Republicans may see advantage in directly pressuring Feinstein, who has maintained close ties to some Valley farmers. Conceivably, though, this pressure could backfire if the state’s senior senator gets her back up.

McClintock, the chair of the key House subcommittee, said Friday he is “hopeful that this year the Senate will engage” in the water issue.

Congress vs. Obama administration

The administration has established a multi-agency National Drought Resilience Partnership to coordinate the federal response, but some Democrats have proposed a higher-profile federal task force. This could be low-hanging fruit for an administration eager to show a commitment.

However, the administration could well resist more aggressive proposals that might boost water deliveries by lessening endangered species protections.

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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