It was touted as the bill “where everybody wins” — a common-sense approach to providing badly needed drought relief to California growers, and a measure that would place the needs of people above those of fish.
Yet House approval Thursday of the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015 may ultimately show just how hard it is for Washington lawmakers to help California as the state endures its fourth year of drought.
The bill passed 245 to 176, with almost all Republican supporters, and is unlikely to break the longstanding partisan stalemate over how to confront the drought. Even if the bill makes it through the Senate, where it would need to pick up several Democratic votes to pass, the White House has indicated President Obama would veto it.
But gridlock isn't the only issue. Some experts say there are few options available to federal lawmakers.
“When it comes to the drought and what can be done, the federal government has limited tools and limited jurisdiction,” said Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis. “What Californians would probably welcome most would be money.”
The House bill aims to funnel more water to San Joaquin Valley growers by reducing the amount used to support endangered fish populations, among a number of other provisions.
“Congress cannot make it rain, but we can enact policies that expand our water infrastructure, allow for more water conveyance, and utilize legitimate science to ensure a reliable water supply for farmers and families,” Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), the bill's author, said in a statement.
Though unlikely to be enacted in its current form, the bill has sparked intense debate about what the federal government should do to help Californians desperate for relief.
“We know this won't become a law, so why are we wasting time on it? Because Republicans will not miss an opportunity to attack the Endangered Species Act,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “They are driving the extinction of fish and wildlife one species at a time.”
The bill's proponents, a group that includes the California Farm Bureau, argue that it would modernize the state's arcane system of water regulations. It also would analyze proposals for new reservoirs.
But Democrats, environmental groups and commercial fishermen called the measure a bid to override legal protections for salmon, migratory birds and other fish and wildlife. They said it would repeal the settlement of an 18-year lawsuit involving the restoration of the San Joaquin River, and limit the federal government's ability to protect commercial and tribal fisheries on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.
The drought's impact on California agriculture and employment has been significant.
According to a recent UC Davis study, more than half a million acres of farmland will be fallowed this year due to drought. Researchers estimated that the total economic loss to state agriculture would be about $2.7 billion, and include the loss of 18,600 jobs.
The drought “isn't a local problem,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), a bill supporter. “Half of the produce we eat in America is grown in California. … When California hurts, the entire nation hurts.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) has called the drought “man-made,” insisting that water has been redirected to the environment instead of being stored for the future.
“The reason we don't have water is not because of drought, but because we didn't hold the water when we had a chance,” Nunes said on the House floor Wednesday.
“No matter how much water we put down the river and out into the ocean, the fish continue to die,” he said.
Among those environmental groups opposing the bill is the Natural Resources Defense Council. On Thursday, a senior attorney for the group, Doug Obegi, said that only 2% of water had been used for environmental purposes this year.
“The vast majority of the water has been going for
human uses,” Obegi said. “As a result, between the drought and all those diversions, many of our fisheries are on the very brink of extinction.”
Approval of the bill increases the pressure on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who many hope will be able to craft a successful compromise bill.
The House bill “included some useful short-term provisions as well as some provisions that would violate environmental law,” Feinstein said in a statement after the vote. “While I cannot support the bill as passed, I remain hopeful we can come to an agreement that can advance through both chambers.”
Among those provisions that won bipartisan praise was one that would push the federal government to conclude reviews of proposed water storage facilities.
“Some of these projects may pencil out, but … some of these have turned into zombie reservoirs that won't go away,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael).
Feinstein, in an opinion piece last month in The Times, said the federal government should support water recycling and desalination projects and make more water available for urban and rural areas as well.
“The drought and our changing water future affect us all, and we must come together and work toward a positive solution,” she wrote.
Morin reported from Los Angeles, Diersing from Washington.