Water & Drought

May 22, 2014

Senate passes California drought-relief bill

With nary a word, the Senate on Thursday night passed a California drought-relief bill that sets up serious negotiations with the House over water storage, river protection, irrigation deliveries and more.

With nary a word, the Senate on Thursday night passed a California drought-relief bill that sets up serious negotiations with the House over water storage, river protection, irrigation deliveries and more.

The dealmaking to come will test Democrats and Republicans alike. It could make or break some reputations, and potentially pit one Central Valley region against another. It's still a work in progress, though the Senate's action was a big step forward for those who want a bill and a blow to those who fear the end result.

"My hope is that this process can proceed quickly and bypass many of the controversial issues that have been raised in the past," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday night. "While we do need long-term solutions to the state's water problems, the bill the Senate passed today authorizes immediate actions to help California."

Using a lickety-split procedure that required getting a green light from all 100 senators, Feinstein pushed her 16-page Emergency Drought Relief Act through the Senate without public debate or a committee hearing. It passed in a flash under unanimous consent, shortly before the Senate adjourned for the Memorial Day weekend.

The Republican-controlled House passed a much more ambitious, 68-page California water bill in February. The House, too, moved its bill without holding committee hearings.

On Thursday night, eight House Republicans issued a joint statement welcoming the Senate bill, while keeping up the political pressure on Feinstein that has been a hallmark of the conversation to date.

"While Senator Feinstein's bill is a starting point, it fails to address our state's long term needs," the House Republicans stated. "We now have an opportunity to find a balance between her temporary measure and the comprehensive bill passed by the House."

Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham called the Senate bill an "important milestone" and voiced his hope that "Senator Feinstein and her colleagues in the House will be able to identify common sense solutions that will restore water supplies, while providing reasonable protections for fish."

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, is identified as the House bill's chief author; the current House bill itself closely resembles a previous bill written by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare.

Feinstein met with the House Republicans, and her staff met with House GOP staff, as she crafted her Senate bill. Feinstein also met with Northern California Democrats, whose districts touch the vulnerable Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. She made some changes to ease some of the House Democrats' concern, but they remain skeptical.

"I don't think there's a reason for a bill," Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said Wednesday, adding his fear that a House and Senate conference will "make a bad bill worse."

Mike Lynes, Audubon California's director of public policy, added his concern Thursday that "compromises to assure (the bill's) passage could have disastrous results for birds and other wildlife in the Central Valley."

The House bill includes myriad provisions that prompted an Obama administration veto threat.

The House bill, for instance, limits part of a landmark 1992 law that directed more water to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It removes wild-and-scenic protections from a half-mile of the Merced River in order to potentially expand McClure Reservoir. It allows more storage at New Melones Reservoir, lengthens federal irrigation contracts to 40 years and preempts some state law.

The House bill also repealed an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, replacing it with something smaller.

The Senate bill includes none of those provisions, though Feinstein said Wednesday she was willing to consider adding water storage provisions to the final version.

"The next step is working with the House to determine what measures we can agree on to improve water supplies," Feinstein said Thursday.

In some ways, the Senate bill would put into law steps the Obama administration has already taken on its own.

The Senate bill, for instance, declares that for every acre-foot of additional San Joaquin River water flowing into the Delta from transfers or exchanges from April 1 through May 31, an acre-foot must be exported for use south of the Delta. An acre-foot is a unit of volume used to measure large quantities of water.

The Senate bill also specifies that the Delta's "Cross Channel gates" remain open as much as possible. Closing the gates protects migrating salmon; opening them can facilitate water deliveries.

Both measures are already in place, through administrative action. Skeptics fear that locking the measures into place through legislation could prove harmful over the long run. More broadly, a crucial battleground for many will be whether the drought-relief bill in its final form will enact permanent changes in water policy, as some farmers hope, or whether it remains in effect as a temporary measure, as some environmentalists prefer.

Read more about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from The Sacramento Bee

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