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California drought bill victory could be short-lived: Sen. Barbara Boxer pledges filibuster as one of her last acts

California drought bill victory could be short-lived: Sen. Barbara Boxer pledges filibuster as one of her last acts
A "bathtub ring" marks the former water level in Millerton Lake near Fresno on Oct. 1, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

The water policy measure overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday to build long-term water infrastructure across the Golden State is headed for a showdown with outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer, who plans to mount a filibuster in the Senate on Friday as one of her final acts in Congress.

The overall bill — which Boxer co-authored — authorizes hundreds of water projects across the country, including new infrastructure to fix lead issues in Flint, Mich., and projects connected to the Los Angeles River, Salton Sea and Lake Tahoe. It also includes plans to increase water flowing from the Sacramento Delta to San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California.

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The California provisions were added to the bill Monday and reflect years of negotiations among Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), California’s 14 Republican lawmakers and a handful of Democrats.

Boxer is vehemently opposed to the added language, called a rider, which she says is an end-run around the Endangered Species Act and its protections for salmon and the nearly extinct delta smelt.

"What's so ironic for me is it's my legacy bill that has a horrible rider on it. It's a miserable feeling because I love the bill and I hate the rider," she said.

She seems prepared to take her fight into the weekend as the Senate attempts to go home for the year. She hinted with a smile she "may need a lot of time to just explain what this rider does."

If Boxer objects to the vote being called, procedural rules would allow her to speak for hours and keep senators from leaving for the year.

The bill passed the House 360-61, and representatives headed for the exit soon after. Thirty-six of California’s 53 House members supported it. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange) did not vote. The 16 California Democrats who voted against the bill mostly represent the Delta and Bay Area and were upset by such a substantial last-minute policy addition to the bill that was not considered through the normal public committee process.

The bill is expected to be called up for a vote in the Senate sometime Friday or early Saturday morning. House members left for the year after voting Thursday, so even if the Senate opted to gut or amend the California section, it's likely too late to make changes.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this week that President Obama does not support some of the California provisions in the bill but will look at the bill in its entirety if it passes before making a decision whether to sign or veto.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) called the California sections a true compromise after numerous failed attempts, noting that even those backing the bill aren’t entirely happy with it.

"We've got a long way to go, but this is a great first step and will provide some relief during another tough drought year," he said.

Described as drought relief, the proposal focuses on environmental restrictions that have at times limited water flow from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to its dry southern neighbors.

At issue is that the measure would allow officials at state and federal water management agencies to exceed the environmental pumping limits to capture more water during storms. Those limits have been a pet peeve of water contractors, including the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which complained of water supplies "lost to the sea" during last winter's heavy rains.

Federal biologists have said certain levels of water flowing through the delta are vital for native fish, which have suffered devastating losses during the state's prolonged drought, and help maintain the quality of the delta's freshwater supplies. In short, if fish are determined to have enough water, or are not near the pumps, the excess water could be sent to the south.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) characterized it as placing political wants above science to go around federal law.

"When an act of Congress specifically supersedes peer-reviewed biological opinions that are the very mechanism of how the Endangered Species Act gets implemented, that is a grave undermining of the act," Huffman said.

Asked if her colleagues would have any choice but to support the bill given the large vote margin in the House, Feinstein said, "That's a good assessment. We'll have to see."

Feinstein and Boxer have long disagreed on how to legislatively address the state's water needs, but for years both have publicly said they wanted to find a bill upon which they could agree. Feinstein's move adding the language Boxer opposes to a bill the retiring senator spent years finding consensus on has led to tension in the final days of the pair's 24-year working relationship.

Despite the overwhelming House vote, Huffman is still hopeful Boxer and other senators upset with the California addition (or other portions of the bill) will be able to block it.

"There are linkages and possibilities here that prevent this from being a slam dunk at this point," Huffman said. "I'm not saying I'm not worried, I am. But, I think there's still a lot of fight left in those of us who think this is terrible policy and don't like having it jammed down our throats."

While ebullient about the vote margin on his side of the building, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) also warned against assuming the bill will pass the Senate.

"We're all very excited, but we're going to hold our breath until the president signs it," he said. "We don't want to celebrate too soon."

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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