Sen. Dianne Feinstein tries yet again with California water bill

Folsum Lake’s waterline was receding in October, when this photo was taken. Storms have since filled the lake.
Folsum Lake’s waterline was receding in October, when this photo was taken. Storms have since filled the lake. Sacramento Bee

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday relaunched a big California water bill, in what might be cast as the triumph of hope over experience.

Unveiling her third proposal in the past two years for ways to divide California’s water supply among many competing interests, Feinstein packaged her latest 184-page measure as a reasonable compromise that draws the best from past Capitol Hill efforts.

“Drafting this bill has been difficult, probably the hardest bill I’ve worked on in my 23 years in the Senate,” Feinstein said. “But it’s important, and that’s why we’ve been working so hard, holding dozens and dozens of meetings and revising the bill over and over again.”

As part of the bill’s unveiling, Feinstein disclosed words of encouragement from parties who usually are on opposite sides of the water battle, including Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and water agencies that serve agricultural interests, including the South Valley Water Association, the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency.

The South Valley Water Association said parts of the bill “have merit” and represent a “positive step in the effort to find reasonable solutions.”

But with California’s House Republicans often demanding more certain deliveries of water for agriculture while Democrats representing the environmentally sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta seek more water for those interests, the new bill faces some familiar obstacles.

“How do you thread that needle?” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in an interview, when asked whether Congress will reach a viable compromise. “I think it’s highly unlikely.”

The bill introduced Wednesday largely tracks draft language Feinstein made public in January. It eases limits on water transfers south of the Delta, but does not mandate specific pumping levels. It authorizes $1.3 billion for desalination, water recycling, storage and grants. It compels completion of feasibility studies for storage projects like Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River.

The money provided includes $600 million for projects that could include constructing Temperance Flat or Sites Reservoir, in the Sacramento Valley, and raising Shasta Dam. The bill also cites “additional storage” at New Melones Reservoir and creates a program to remove non-native predator fish from the Stanislaus River.

“This bill won’t be everything for everyone; candidly, that’s not possible with California water policy,” Feinstein said, “but I believe the bill strikes the right balance.”

Underscoring the challenges ahead, Feinstein’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer, remained agnostic on the bill Wednesday, saying simply that she thanked Feinstein for her work and will now “look forward to getting feedback from all the major stakeholders.”

Feinstein’s latest bill also confronts, both in California and on Capitol Hill, changing climates that could further complicate lawmakers’ efforts.

The Republican-controlled House passed an extremely ambitious water bill in February 2012, when the statewide snowpack was 33 percent of normal. Written with little Democratic involvement, and passed along nearly strict party lines, the package eventually died.

When Feinstein introduced her first California Emergency Drought Act in February 2014, following the earlier House action, the statewide snowpack was 20 percent of normal. Now, though, propelled by El Nino, the statewide snowpack is 105 percent of normal.

While drought conditions persist, the infectious sense of political urgency may be lessened.

In Congress, moreover, the repeated legislative failures have chilled the negotiating atmosphere. California’s House Republicans gathered last December to explicitly blame California’s senators for the failure to reach a deal, and the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has subsequently taunted Feinstein for not introducing a bill as quickly as she promised.

“While Senator Feinstein’s legislation fails to provide real water to my constituents, I hope she is able to secure passage of the legislation in the Senate so that the two chambers may . . . reconcile the differences between both bills,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

House members are skeptical about any targeted spending that might be classified as an earmark, making those provisions of the Feinstein bill vulnerable. In another conflict, Valadao expressed the views of many House Republicans when he stressed that “mandated pumping levels are absolutely necessary.”

“I recognize that any bill in the Republican-led House will be far more aggressive on the short-term operational provisions and downplay the long-term provisions,” Feinstein said, “but such a bill would never pass the Senate.”

Feinstein’s bill does not address a proposed irrigation drainage settlement between the federal government and the Westlands Water District, which is the subject of a bill introduced last month by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency were part of the South Valley Water Association. They three organizations are separate entities.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10