House looks to help Calif. drought victims by easing Obama's water restrictions

The House will pass legislation next week that would restore the flow of water to farms, homes and businesses in California's Central Valley, to help victims of what congressional Republicans say is a drought that is being made worse by the Obama administration.

The legislation, H.R. 3964, is sponsored by California's entire Republican delegation, and seeks to restore a 1994 agreement called the Bay-Delta Accord that found a compromise between environmentalists and the water needs of homeowners and industry.

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In 2009, the Obama administration upset that agreement by requiring the diversion of water away from farmers and residents to help ensure enough water for salmon and a three-inch fish called the Delta smelt. The Obama administration justified this under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but California Republicans say this decision led to a government-created drought for regions of California's Central Valley.

"The current California drought is a crisis exacerbated by the failure of government to recognize the damage it can cause when it gets in between our country's farmers and a critical resource needed to supply food to our nation and economic growth in the Central Valley," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said this week. "The government has decided that rather than follow a law on the books since 1994 that secures adequate water to the Central Valley, protecting a fish is more important."

The bill is being brought up during what has been California's most severe water crisis in decades, brought on by historically low rainfall. Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and asked state residents to conserve water "in every way possible."

His declaration required state agencies to use less water and gave state officials more power to manage water supply in the state.

But in Congress, the GOP's effort to reverse Obama's ESA decision has been unsuccessful so far. The House passed a similar bill in 2012, in a 246-175 vote, and the Senate never considered it. California Republicans said Democrats need to address the issue to help water-starved areas of their home state.

"Unfortunately, Senate Democrats have yet to even offer a proposal to deliver needed water to the Central Valley," McCarthy said. "It is time, as representatives for the entire state, that Senator [Barbara] Boxer [D-Calif.] and Senator [Dianne] Feinstein [D-Calif.] support drought stricken Californians and get behind this legislation."

"The time for talk is over," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who was the sponsor of the similar legislation in the last Congress. "The House has acted, and it's time for the Senate to join us in providing critical assistance to the people of California."

This year's bill is sponsored by Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), who said Obama's ruling means families and farmers are "not receiving the water they need to meet their basic, every day needs."

Aside from ensuring the delivery of water, it also takes several other steps meant to ensure the stability of water supplies. For example, it focuses on using water resources only on the restoration of native fish species under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, not some of the non-native species that have been included in recent years.

Additionally, it would reduce the amount of water dedicated to fish, wildlife and habitat restoration to the original maximum levels required under current law. McCarthy said that under a federal law passed in 1992, a maximum of 800,000 acre-feet of water was dedicated for these purposes, but that an average of 1.2 million acre-feet of water has been made available.