By Carolyn Lochhead
WASHINGTON — House Republicans ratcheted up pressure on California Democrats to defend river and fish restorations in the delta amid a historic statewide drought, passing legislation Wednesday that would ship scarce water from Northern California to parched farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
Dismissed by Democrats as a political ploy to boost the fortunes of Central Valley Republicans in the November elections, the legislation by first-term Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, nonetheless draws national attention to tensions over California’s dwindling water supplies.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, one of the key backers of the bill, ridiculed San Franciscans who ask why farmers plant crops in the desert.
“They never liked the fact that farmers and farm workers were making what was once a dry area of the state the Garden of Eden of this world,” Nunes said. “They don’t want to admit to themselves when they live in the beautiful cities of Hollywood and San Francisco, all these great cities on the coast of California, that it’s a desert. They don’t have any water either.”
Rerun of 2012 fight
The bill that the House approved Wednesday on a 229-191 partisan vote, HR 3964, is a replay of water legislation by Nunes that passed the House in 2012 but died in the Senate.
The bill would permanently halt efforts to reconnect the San Joaquin River to the Pacific Ocean through San Francisco Bay, and permanently reallocate water south to Central Valley farmers. It would override protections for salmon and the endangered delta smelt, which Republicans mock as a useless, tiny fish but which environmentalists see as an indicator species.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, called the bill “a theft of water from someone to give to somebody else, plain and simple.” The water, he said, would be “stolen” from the delta, from the salmon fishing industry of California’s northern coast and from East Bay cities, and delivered to those whose water rights were intended to give way in periods of shortage.
The bill, he said, “rips up California water contracts and state law. If enacted, this extreme bill would cause an ecological disaster for the San Francisco Bay and an economic crisis for California.”
Garamendi offered failed amendments to the bill, one based on his own water plan for the state, which focusses on new water infrastructure, increased conservation and water recycling, and another that would prevent any action that would undermine local, state or federal prohibiting water from one community being exported to other areas.
Republicans, holding up posters of dead almond trees, argued that allowing rivers to flow to the sea is akin to pouring water down the drain.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said billions of acre-feet of water have been “dumped into the ocean for the care and amusement of the delta smelt,” draining reservoirs “needed to support the threatened human population.”
Nunes charged that Sacramento, Vallejo and other cities are doing more to kill the smelt by dumping their sewage into the delta and bay than are the pumps that ship water south.
The legislation was fast-tracked to the House floor without committee consideration. It is opposed by most Democratic officeholders in California, from Gov. Jerry Brown on down, as well as many Western governors who object to the bill’s trumping of state water laws. But it did pick up support from one Central Valley Democrat, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, who said the legislation would make it easier to move water to where it’s needed.
The White House issued a swift veto threat, saying in a statement of policy that the bill would “undermine years of collaboration between local, state, and federal stakeholders to develop a sound water quality control plan for the Bay-Delta.”
Without the assent of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat seen as the congressional heavyweight on water issues because of her power as chair of the water panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the bill will go no further. Last week, she slammed the House legislation in unmistakable terms, calling it “ugly” and “dangerous.”
Feinstein writing own bill
Yet Feinstein has sought in the past to send more water to Central Valley farmers, much to the dismay of Bay Area Democrats. She is writing her own bill, still under wraps, that has environmentalists fearful.
At the same time, Feinstein was a key mover behind efforts to reconnect the San Joaquin River to San Francisco Bay, a $400 million effort that involves increased releases from the Friant Dam east of Fresno to restore miles of the river that have been dry for years. The releases mean less water for 15,000 farms in the region, but Congress has set aside money to help water districts offset that loss with new storage facilities and repairs to canals.
The House bill would kill that project and end the releases.
Republicans are making no secret of their effort to pressure Feinstein. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, held up a giant poster Wednesday of a Fresno Bee editorial demanding that Feinstein act.
Patricia Schifferle, a consultant who has worked in the state Legislature and with environmental groups on water issues, said she feared the House bill “will put pressure on Dianne Feinstein to take actions that could be very harmful to San Francisco Bay and the delta estuary.”
— Enterprise staff writer Cory Golden contributed to this report.