Fight over California drought heats up in Congress

Fight over California drought heats up in Congress
© Getty

Efforts in Congress are heating up to bring some relief to California’s historic drought, just as the dry summer season is starting.

The Golden State is in its fifth year facing exceptional drought conditions.

And while its congressional delegation is eager to find ways to better save water, and redirect it where needed, longstanding partisan and regional fights that fueled water wars since before California was a state are paralyzing efforts to help.

ADVERTISEMENT

The House twice in recent days has debated GOP-backed measures to increase the water pumped through federal infrastructure from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — a massive delta that acts largely as the hub of the federal and state water canals — to Central Valley farms and Southern California.

Democrats have tried to stop the efforts, arguing that the water losses would hurt endangered fish and the delta’s ecosystem. They say conservation and technology development are key to solving a drought exacerbated by climate change.

Meanwhile, the Senate is debating Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrump administration urges Congress to reauthorize NSA surveillance program The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death Juan Williams: We need a backlash against Big Tech MORE’s (D-Calif.) bill to give more flexibility to federal authorities in water pumping decisions.

And California’s drought is entering the presidential election too, thanks to a Friday visit to Fresno by Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE, who declared, “we’re going to solve your water problem.”

“Gentlemen and ladies, welcome to California water wars,” Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiHouse Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment Trump bashes Mueller for 'ineptitude,' slams 'sick' Democrats backing impeachment Pelosi denies she's 'trying to run out the clock' on impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) said on the House floor in opposition to the GOP attaching California-focused water measures to an energy and waterways spending bill.

“This is not the way to handle it.”

Thomas Holyoke, a professor of political science at California State University Fresno, said years of regional conflict in the state are fueling the fight in Congress.

“California for its entire history has been torn apart regionally over water,” Holyoke said. “A lot of the water that comes to the Central Valley for irrigation — and a lot of the water that goes all the way down to Los Angeles and San Diego — actually originates in Northern California. So Northern Californians have a tendency to feel that their water is subsidizing the entire rest of the state.”

The divides have split lawmakers even within the same party.

This year’s El Nino greatly increased the amount of precipitation that hit California, providing temporary relief for the state and building up reservoirs. But that is only temporarily, and forecasters expect the problems to continue.

From the federal perspective, efforts to help California through its drought mostly involve water infrastructure operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. That infrastructure takes water from Northern California to the Central Valley and Southern California.

As the drought has stretched on, the amount of water pumped has fallen.

The GOP and representatives of the areas that receive the water also blame the Endangered Species Act. They say the Obama administration is using that law to justify letting water flow through the rivers to protect Delta smelt and other fish species instead of through canals for farmers.

The House GOP’s main bill on California’s drought is sponsored by Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and endorsed by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the whole Republican delegation. It sets minimum pumping volumes and new standards for when endangered species concerns can override pumping — something the Democrats say amounts to gutting the law. The House passed the bill last year.

“This is not in a third world country,” said McCarthy. “This is in the United States of America, this is right here in California, and this is something that's happening in these communities because of this water being wasted,” he said.

Feinstein’s bill doesn’t dictate volumes, but gives federal officials more flexibility in how they make water and species decisions. The Obama administration has endorsed her legislation, but not Valadao’s.

The GOP also successfully put key pieces of Valadao’s bill into an energy bill, to get it into conference negotiations with the Senate — over the objections of nearly all of the state’s Democrats.

“There’s a simple message for our Democrat colleagues in the Senate: House Republicans won’t stop. We will keep passing bills until our people get the water they need,” McCarthy said during debate about that measure.

“Because once we get water, so much of the uncertainty facing California and the west will be brushed aside.”

Valadao’s bill also would undo an agreement to remove a dam on the San Joaquin River.

Both the Valadao and Feinstein bills, to different degrees, aim to increase water storage, support desalination projects and other measures.

Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Hispanic civil rights icon endorses Harris for president California AG Becerra included in Bloomberg 50 list MORE (D-Calif.) has yet to sign on to Feinstein’s bill, though is open to negotiations. Most House Democrats also oppose it, but say they prefer it to Valadao’s.

“It’s basically Congress overriding peer-reviewed biological opinions and dictating, at a very prescriptive level of detail, how this complex water system will be operated, for some undefined period of time,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said of Feinstein’s bill.

With lawmakers deadlocked, the state is bracing for another hot summer.

But whatever Congress does about California’s water would really be a drop in the bucket, Holyoke cautioned.

“The big problem is that we’re starting to fight over a diminishing amount of water, and that raises the stakes for everybody,” he said.

“The legislation really just works at the margins.”