House approves California drought bill

The House moved Thursday to provide relief to the most parched areas of drought-plagued California with a bill to increase water flows through federal infrastructure.

The House voted to approve the bill 245-176, mostly along party lines, despite a White House threat to veto the measure.

The legislation is the Republican Party’s signature measure to confront California’s four-year-long drought and an attempt to fight back at Democratic policies that the GOP says prioritize fish over humans.

The bill would mandate certain volumes of water that the federal government must push through the Central Valley Project, a massive system of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts and other infrastructure built to take water from California’s wetter areas to its dryer ones.

In doing so, it answers a common criticism of the Obama administration: that it is reducing water flows to protect endangered fish species that rely on the water, based on unfounded fears and bad scientific studies.

The bill is a major test for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is tasked with balancing his leadership responsibilities while staying in touch with his agriculture-heavy district in the Central Valley.

McCarthy has jumped on the issue in part to ensure he won't face a similar fate as former House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorGOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington House Republicans find silver lining in minority MORE (R-Va.), who lost his primary in a surprise defeat last summer that many blamed on failing to focus on the needs of his district.

As House majority leader, McCarthy had the power to ensure the legislation would get floor time before lawmakers break for the August recess.

"The nation should know what the people in my district know: Food grows where water flows. No water equals higher food costs," McCarthy said during floor debate on the measure.

He cast the California drought as a threat to the nation's food supply.

"This isn’t a local problem. Half of the produce we eat in America is grown in California," McCarthy said. "When California hurts, the entire nation hurts as well."

Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), the bill’s chief sponsor and one of the top Democratic targets this election cycle, said conservation efforts were not enough to ensure Californians have access to water.

“We’ve done what we can. We do it in our homes. We’ve done it in the way we live our lives. But at the end of the day, you can’t conserve anything from zero. Because zero is nothing. There’s nothing left,” Valadao said on the floor.

Democrats criticized the bill, saying it’s an attack on protections for endangered fish and wouldn’t really solve the drought, which they believe is caused or exacerbated by climate change.

“Despite their professed love for our public resources, some of my Republican colleagues just can’t seem to find a species worth saving or habitat worth protecting,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

“This bill is a major disappointment to me, to the people of California, and to the ninety percent of Americans who think the Endangered Species Act is worth preserving,” he continued.

The Obama administration threatened to veto the bill earlier this week, citing the endangered species protections and other problems.

“Like similar legislation in the last Congress, H.R. 2898 was developed with little input from the public, the administration, or key stakeholders affected by the drought,” the White House said. “The urgency and seriousness of the California drought requires a balanced and flexible approach that promotes water reliability and ecosystem restoration.”

The legislation would set a high bar for federal officials to reduce volumes, requiring that they prove that fish species would go extinct otherwise, while putting new standards on the scientific studies they use to prove that.

The bill also is a major rebuke to the policies of California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and his Democratic and environmental allies, who have emphasized water conservation amid the drought.

Brown in April ordered a 25 percent cut in water use within the state, the first time such a restriction has been mandated. While residents and businesses have had mixed results trying to achieve that goal, residential water use dropped 28.9 percent in May, the most recent month with data available.