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California’s water future will change as a result of this bill set for House approval

The Stanislaus River seen from the First Street Bridge in Riverbank, California.
The Stanislaus River seen from the First Street Bridge in Riverbank, California. Modesto Bee

A California water bill set for House approval on Thursday that’s split the state’s two Democratic senators will make it easier for the incoming Trump administration to build new Western dams.

Non-native predatory fish in the Stanislaus River will be test-targeted for elimination. New Melones reservoir storage could expand. Money would flow to water recycling projects in cities such as Sacramento and San Luis Obispo, and to desalination projects like ones proposed for Southern California.

Not least, farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta may get more of the water flowing through Central Valley Project canals, though, precisely how much more is just one of the ambiguities still surrounding the California package.

“While these temporary drought provisions will not solve our water crisis, I am encouraged by their inclusion ... and will continue to fight until a permanent solution is achieved,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said Wednesday.

Some of the ambiguities are an inevitable result of seasonal water supply variations. Others result from aspirational rather than mandatory language. The bill, for instance, directs the Interior Department to make “every reasonable effort” to make full water deliveries to Sacramento Valley irrigation districts.

Lots of litigation could follow.

The approximately 91 pages of often-technical language represent the federal government’s most significant recalibration of California water use in a generation. Like the last big water rewrite, pushed by environmentalists in 1992, supporters are seeking to jam it through in a big bill at the end of Congress over the objections of one of the state’s senators.

The timing of these drought provisions is critical so our water system can capture and store desperately needed water.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif.

Underscoring the political sensitivities, the California Natural Resources Agency declined to comment on the wide-ranging legislation.

“I’m trying to get them to support it,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, “but I certainly don’t want them to oppose it.”

With lawmakers eager to depart Washington for the Christmas break, the House is set to vote on the California water provisions Thursday morning. The Senate’s timing is trickier to predict.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein primarily negotiated the California water package with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, along with their respective staffs, and they added it to a larger bill called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The move caught Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer by surprise, and prompted an explosive response from the retiring lawmaker.

“I will use every tool at my disposal to stop this last-minute poison pill rider,” Boxer declared.

The two long-time colleagues subsequently spoke at a regular Tuesday lunch-time meeting of Senate Democrats, and both addressed the caucus as well about the water issues. Feinstein, though, did not make it to the Senate chamber Wednesday morning for Boxer’s farewell Senate speech.

“I don’t think this is any way to set water policy,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Wednesday. “I think this is very much a cynical power play.”

Huffman joined Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton and eight other House Democrats in a letter to the Obama administration Wednesday urging a presidential veto of the overall bill if the California provisions weren’t removed.

Administration officials, though, stopped well short of a veto threat for the multi-state package that includes high-profile funding to help Flint, Mich., cope with its tainted drinking water. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday said “we don’t support the kinds of proposals that have been put forward” for California, but also noted the measure will be looked at in its “totality.”

The bill does not name specific California projects for authorization or funding, to avoid a congressional ban on earmarks. Previous versions, though, identified 27 desalination projects and 105 potential recycling and reuse projects that may be eligible for some of the final bill’s $558 million in overall funding.

Potential water storage projects eligible for $335 million of the funding, though likewise left unnamed in the final bill, include Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley.

The broader water infrastructure bill does specify some beneficiaries, including the Lake Tahoe restoration program and Indian tribes in Tuolumne and Tulare counties, on whose behalf the federal government will be taking land into trust. Gambling operations will not be permitted on the trust land.

“Like any compromise, I don’t like everything in it, but the net effect is an important step forward in protecting against the devastation of future droughts in California and catastrophic wildfire that threatens Lake Tahoe,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong party for Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10

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