As California drought looms, political division could slow solutions to a trickle

Bee Washington BureauJanuary 16, 2014 

— A California drought will soon test lawmakers' ability to legislate.

It's a test they haven't always passed.

But as an official California drought declaration draws closer, members of the state's often fractious congressional delegation are maneuvering once more. Freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, has been quietly trying to write water legislation. Rep. Tom McClintock will convene his House water panel for hearings. Democrats have formed a new water caucus, meeting for the first time this week.

"We'll see whether or not we can come together on something that makes sense," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

On Thursday, driving the point home, Costa and the state's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, sent the Obama administration a letter urging establishment of a drought task force.

"I don't care who gets the credit for this, so long as we get something done," Costa said in an interview.

Feinstein also said Thursday that she will “plan to introduce legislation directing federal agencies to use all administrative options to the maximum extent allowable under law" to help mitigate the drought’s effects."

Impediments, though, abound. Republicans and Democrats often seem inclined to go their own way. House and Senate members occupy different worlds. Roadmaps are hard to find.

"There have been numerous meetings and numerous phone calls; there have been direct talks with high-level people all around this building," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, said in the Capitol. "But the Senate is going to have to tell us what they're willing to do."

All the maneuvering occurs amid dire omens.

The average statewide snowpack was only at about 20% of normal in early January. Water supply is already low. The San Luis Reservoir is only holding 42% of its average capacity, while Shasta Reservoir is storing little more than half of its January average, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

In Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown is preparing to formally declare a drought. Interior Department officials, meanwhile, are preparing to announce irrigation water allocations in late February for customers of the sprawling Central Valley Project, a federal water management effort. Farmers and their friends in Congress expect little.

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 27 California counties -- including all of the San Joaquin Valley -- to be "primary natural disaster areas" due to drought conditions. The designation, which also came for the central San Joaquin Valley last year, means farmers can apply for low-interest emergency loans from USDA's Farm Service Agency. Farmers have until Sept. 15 to apply.

The conditions are attracting the kind of national attention that can drive political action. NBC's "Today" show weatherman Al Roker on Wednesday spotlighted at some length the "historical Western drought," while the conservative National Review magazine devoted several pages to the topic, largely blaming environmentalists.

Much of the drought response will come from the state, and Nunes acknowledged that the federal Interior Department's ability to provide tangible help is "very limited." Some federal decision-making might be streamlined; some modest disaster funding might become available.

Personnel can help. On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee affirmed Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael L. Connor as deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Connor knows a lot about California water, making his eventual Senate confirmation a potentially important step for the state.

Hearings can set the stage for additional action. The chairman of the Water and Power Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, McClintock, R-Granite Bay, whose district stretches the spine of the Sierra south as far as eastern Fresno County, indicated Thursday that plans are "still being developed" for drought hearings this year.

"I would expect them to include inquiries into unnecessary water releases and impediments to additional storage, particularly at previously identified sites," McClintock said in an email Thursday.

McClintock added that he expects to see "a number of water bills with particular significance to California" to be introduced, involving topics like "one-stop permitting for new surface storage."

Costa and three other House Democrats have formed a water caucus to float ideas. Two represent districts near the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Reps. George Miller and John Garamendi. Another, Rep. Grace Napolitano from Southern California, serves as senior Democrat on the water and power panel.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is also paying close attention.

"Whip McCarthy and his California colleagues are in on-going discussions on how best to respond to the water shortage facing our farmers and ranchers," spokesman Mike Long said Thursday. "Federal and state water and environmental policies are also needlessly exacerbating our problems."

Still, legislating is trickier than talking. Bills move slowly or often simply stall, and even those that pass take time to come into effect. Moreover, as Garamendi observed last year, "Whatever power we may have, we don't have the power to overcome a natural drought." Still, bills are coming.

The last big California water bill in 2012, during the 112th Congress, passed the House on a largely partisan vote and then stalled in the Senate. Conservative proponents, including Nunes, blamed Feinstein. Democrats countered that the bill's backers seemed more interested in sending a message than in cutting a deal.

Several provisions of the House's prior 54-page California water bill, in particular, were anathema to the Senate, including a dramatic scaling back of a San Joaquin River restoration program.

This Congress, Valadao has been struggling for months to write another version of the California water bill. It's been slow going, with McClintock noting that water bills require "a difficult balance" among regional interests.

The omnibus spending bill agreed to by the House on Wednesday includes some California water provisions. These include a one-year reauthorization and $37 million for the CALFED Bay-Delta Environmental Restoration program, as well as provisions to ease water transfers and help study potential new water storage projects.

Bee staff contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (202) 383-0006, mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or @MichaelDoyle10 on Twitter.

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