House Speaker touts drought emergency bill at Bakersfield event

The Fresno BeeJanuary 22, 2014 

— House Speaker John Boehner and three San Joaquin Valley Republican congressmen on Wednesday called on their Senate colleagues to approve emergency drought legislation they say would bring more water to the region.

The proposed bill, which is temporary and would likely sunset sometime in the summer of 2015, would allow the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumps to operate as long as water is available. It would also temporarily halt the San Joaquin River restoration. Finally, it would establish a joint House-Senate committee of 10 members that would meet over the rest of the year to come up with longer-term solutions to deal with California's drought, now in its third year.

Valley congressmen Devin Nunes of Tulare, David Valadao of Hanford and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, along with Boehner, chose a bone-dry farm field just past the northern edge of the city to hold their news conference. There was nary a tree, and only a John Deere tractor broke the dusty, brown view.

Boehner, standing atop a pallet in the fallow field belonging to farmer Larry Starrh and his family, pledged to fast track the legislation.

"The real issue here is not the House, because the House can pass it," Boehner said, hinting at the Republican control of the chamber. "Now it's time for the Senate to act."

The Senate is where Republicans are in the minority.

Boehner's statements were echoed by the three Valley congressmen.

"The reason why we are moving toward this (joint committee) is the House has acted, but the Senate has never taken a position," McCarthy said. "How do you solve a problem if the Senate will never tell you where they stand?"

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, however, disputed that contention in a statement.

"For the past two years I have worked to pass measures to improve water supplies by expediting water transfers, increasing water banking and completing water storage feasibility studies," she said. "Last month, the House finally agreed to lift their objection to these measures."

Feinstein said she'd outlined her efforts in a letters sent Wednesday to McCarthy, Nunes and Valadao.

As for the proposal itself, Feinstein reserved judgment because she hasn't seen the language, but expressed concern that its delta and San Joaquin River components "may follow the pattern of previous House bills which seek to either preempt state law or waive state water quality and Endangered Species Act requirements which could spur serious litigation and likely delay any action."

But Feinstein said she does like one part of the proposal -- the joint committee. She said it "makes good sense ... as I have said before I stand ready to collaborate with anyone to solve California's water problems."

McCarthy said the proposed joint committee would be bipartisan: five House members, with three Republicans and two Democrats, and five Senators, consisting of three Democrats and two Republicans.

"It will go away at the end of the year, but the point will be to come up with long-term recommendations," McCarthy said.

The state's other senator, Barbara Boxer, was less charitable in her assessment of the proposal, saying in a statement that it was "old ideas that ignore many of the stakeholders counting on a real solution to this devastating drought."

Boxer urged Republicans to support a three-point plan she and Feinstein outlined in a letter to President Obama. The proposal calls for appointment of a drought task force and a drought coordinator to work with a similar state-level effort, calling for a broad federal disaster declaration, and urging the Obama administration to direct federal agencies to expedite water transfers and infrastructure improvements.

Several environmental organizations were also highly suspect of the proposal.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association said it would destroy the state's salmon fishing industry and still not deliver needed water to Valley agriculture. It is a drought, not any pumping restrictions, that is driving the crisis, the association said.

And the advocacy group Restore the Delta in a statement said the proposal was "nothing more than a blatant, short-sighted water grab, fueled by years of political contributions from huge growers in the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency."

But at least one agriculture organization supported the move.

Western Growers Association President and CEO Tom Nassif said in a statement that he believed a "bipartisan agreement is necessary and possible."

"The drought is doing great damage to farmers, farmworkers and many other people who are part of the most productive agriculture state in the country," Nassif said. "Federal regulatory decisions made last year in the delta made this situation much worse by failing to pump and store more than 800,000 acre feet of winter runoff."

Despite all the hoopla from both sides, there was very little in the way of specifics. There still is no published legislation for the bill. But Nunes said it is pretty simple and would be "about three pages long."

Fresno Rep. Jim Costa, the lone Valley Democrat in Congress, said he wants to see the bill's language.

"I would like to support it, and I am willing to be a co-sponsor if I agree with what's in the bill," he said.

What mostly came forth Wednesday from the four congressmen was intense frustration with the U.S. Senate over the entire water debate.

A Nunes bill that proposed restoring about 1.4 million acre-feet of water annually to Valley farmers who have lost water to environmental causes came up often during the news conference. It passed the House, but went nowhere in the Senate.

"When the forefathers built this state, including the governor's own father, they weren't idiots at the time," Nunes said, referring to Gov. Jerry Brown's father, former Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. "Suddenly we've all become idiots."

Nunes said water planners knew how much water there was, and developed an infrastructure to harnass those flows. But it's now been decided "to start flushing this water out to the ocean."

The latest legislation -- expected to be officially introduced next week -- comes a few days after Brown declared an official state of emergency to deal with the drought. California is in the midst of its third dry year. The lack of snow and rain has depleted reservoirs and reduced streams and rivers to drastically low levels.

Still, critics of the bill pointed out that the delta pumps that supply water to west-side Valley farmers are working at minimal levels and have been for two months. And the reason has nothing to do with any environmental restrictions dealing with threatened delta smelt and endangered salmon populations. Instead, it's because of the lack of precipitation.

The river restoration was set in motion by a 2006 agreement among farm water districts, the federal government and a group of environmental, fishing and conservation groups, settling an 18-year-old lawsuit. The river dried up and salmon runs died decades ago after Friant Dam was built.

Along with restoring the river, the $1 billion project is aimed at recapturing as much water as possible for farm water districts. The project began in fall 2009 with experimental releases of water from Friant Dam, which briefly reconnected the river with the Pacific Ocean.

This year, water releases are getting to the Mendota Pool, about 60 miles downstream, but the river does not connect with the ocean. If the winter continues to be critically dry, restoration water releases from Friant Dam will stop at the end of February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The delta is the main water source for the Valley's west side agriculture, while the San Joaquin River provides water to east-side Valley agriculture.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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