House passes California drought bill to override Obama on environment

The House late Wednesday approved a bill that would override an Obama administration decision to limit water to homes, farms and businesses in California's Central Valley.

Members passed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, H.R. 3964, in a mostly party-line 229-191 vote. Seven Democrats voted with Republicans, and two Republicans voted against it.

The bill prompted an hourlong debate on the House floor, in which California Republicans argued the federal government is destroying the Central Valley, and California Democrats argued the problem is not government policy, but record-low rainfall and snowpack.

Republicans acknowledged these natural conditions have hurt their state but said the Obama administration is to blame for making the situation worse. In 2009, the administration required water to be diverted away from the Central Valley in order to protect fish, including the 3-inch Delta smelt.

"California's drought is nature's fault, but our failure to prepare for it is our fault," said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.). Several Republicans blasted Democrats during debate for choosing fish over people.

"Environmentalists have decided that fish are more important than the unemployed," said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). He said the bill "puts families before fish."

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), added that failure to restore water deliveries to the Central Valley would hurt the state's agricultural production, which would lead to price increases around the country because California is a significant producer of many fruits and vegetables.

"Anybody that claims to be helpful … and votes against this bill is literally saying, 'I want to raise the cost of food to everybody in the United States," he said.

The bill would require California to restore water deliveries to the Central Valley that were made under the 1994 Bay Delta Accord, which the GOP says was a compromise between residents, farms, environmentalists, and the state and federal government.

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 nonnative 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, 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.

Several California Democrats argued the bill would undermine state law and California's constitution, and the bill was a waste of time because the Senate would not consider it. Some noted the Senate didn't touch a similar bill the House passed in 2012.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), said the reason for the drought in California is lack of rain and snow, and nothing in the bill would change that. "It would be more productive for this body to join in a rain dance on the floor today than to pass this bill," he said.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said the bill would essentially authorize the theft of water. "In this case, the water is going to be stolen … from the delta, from the environment, San Francisco bay, from the salmon, which is a huge industry in California … to be given to the largest single water district in the nation," he said.

But Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who sponsored the bill in the last Congress, said it is Democrats who have conspired to steal water from the valley to send to other regions of the state. He said much of this water is wasted.

"This is about 40 years of policies that passed out of this body that took water from our region and sent it out to the ocean," he said.

Earlier in the day, the Obama administration said it opposes the bill and President Obama would veto it if it made it to his desk.

"Specifically, H.R. 3964 would undermine years of collaboration between local, State, and Federal stakeholders to develop a sound water quality control plan for the Bay-Delta," the administration wrote. "And, contrary to current and past Federal reclamation law that defers to State water law, the bill would preempt California water law."

Just before the final vote, the House considered eight Democratic amendments, and only accepted one from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). His language would require the government to use California's drought emergency declaration as a basis for examining whether a fishery resource disaster has occurred in the state, and it was approved in a voice vote.

Results for the defeated amendments follow:

— Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), removing a subsidy to agricultural loans to require that interest is repaid on the capital costs of a project. Failed 179-239.

— Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), striking language that requires a reduction in the number of acre-feet of water available for habitat restoration. Failed 193-228.

— Ami Bera (D-Calif.), delaying implementation of the bill until a finding is made that it won't have an impact on the quantity and quality of drinking water in the California Delta region. Failed 194-226.

— Lois Capps (D-Calif.), requiring the Government Accountability Office to study on the resiliency of Bureau of Reclamation projects and facilities to any predicted changes to water availability due to the bill. Failed 194-227.

— Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), blocking implementation of the bill until a determination is made that it won't interfere with California's Delta and water management reform. Failed 189-231.

— Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), preventing implementation until a determination is made that no harm will be done to water quality or delivery in California's Delta region. Failed 193-230.

— Scott Peters (D-Calif.), delaying implementation of the bill until the government finds it does not affect any community's water supply or water budget. Failed 192-231.

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