A problem 'too big to ignore' — how years of congressional wrangling led to a water compromise

Few people expected a California water fight in the final days of a lame-duck Congress, and fewer still expected landmark water legislation to pit the state’s U.S. senators against each other in the last moments of their 24-year partnership.

It took years of negotiations, and the right political timing, to bring the first major water policy affecting California in decades through the House and Senate. Over frayed feelings and filibuster threats, both chambers overwhelmingly passed the bill, which changes how much water is pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California.

How did things get to this point?

California’s congressional delegation has long disagreed over how to respond to the Golden State’s water crisis, balancing protecting endangered species and preserving waterways against agricultural demand and drying wells.

Still, the state’s 14 Republican lawmakers met off and on with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and a handful of House Democrats to try to forge a compromise.

“Every time it slipped away, we never let it die,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) told The Times in an interview in his office. “Every time we’d get mad at each other, we’d come back at it.”

Senate approves water bill over Sen. Barbara Boxer's objections »

One of the most visible slips away was last December, when McCarthy added California water policy language to a federal spending bill and mistakenly released a statement that Feinstein was on board.

She and other California Democrats were furious, saying the draft legislation wasn’t ready.

“I thought we were there. I submitted it and then that blew it up,” McCarthy said.

Fingers were pointed. It would be months before the group seriously discussed water policy again.

Feinstein tried to go it alone, introducing a 184-page bill in February based on the years of negotiations. She called it “the hardest thing I’ve done.”

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee held one hearing on the measure, then a second. But the legislation couldn’t get traction. Colleagues warned Feinstein she needed Republican buy-in before anything would happen.

With her bill still not moving any closer to a Senate vote, Feinstein turned again to McCarthy and the House members.

“What was I supposed to do? Give up and do nothing?” Feinstein told The Times. “We’re in the sixth year of drought, and people are frightened and the economy is being affected by it. Jobs have been lost.”

It was at that first meeting with Feinstein on July 7 that McCarthy began pitching his plan to include portions of her bill in the massive water infrastructure bill.

That measure, the Water Resources Development Act, had been negotiated over two years in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It authorizes hundreds of water projects across the country, including restoration projects connected to the Los Angeles River, Salton Sea and Lake Tahoe, and more than two dozen other California projects.

Boxer, who had for years served as a foil to attempts to pull more water from the Delta, also happened to be the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, and along with Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) co-wrote the legislation.

The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill in September. That meant both sides would have to reconcile them to pass it, a chance to add a few new things.

“I knew this was a perfect opportunity. If we had gotten all of our work together, if we could come to an agreement. We were always close,” McCarthy said.

The infrastructure bill was becoming a must-pass for Republicans and Democrats alike, especially after authorization was added for new infrastructure to fix longstanding lead issues in the water in Flint, Mich., an issue Congress had failed to address for more than a year.

The Californians knew there were enough other enticing items in the water infrastructure bill that their state and national colleagues wanted that it would be difficult for Boxer to stop their efforts.

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who has negotiated for years for more water for his Central Valley district, said he didn’t hesitate about the fact it was Boxer’s landmark bill and a finale ahead of her retirement.

“She’s not been helpful at all in recent years to try to solve any of the difficult issues on regional basis affecting California water,” Costa said. “I appreciate her support for the environmental community, but unless you’re able to reach some level of consensus and understand the nature of these very complex issues, then you’re not adding value to the legislative solutions to this very difficult challenge we face in California.”

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), who has been part of the discussions for years, said if Democrats weren’t at the table, they chanced Republicans writing the bill alone next year, especially with a president more willing to sign it.

“They control the whole game,” Garamendi said. “You cannot stand back and do nothing, because they, the exporters, will write the bill and it will override the Endangered Species Act.”

After a final meeting shortly before Thanksgiving, and a last check with the White House that President Obama wouldn’t threaten to veto the bill over their move, McCarthy pulled the trigger Dec. 5 and inserted the language, taking many by surprise.

Boxer, who was looking forward to a last week in Congress full of goodbye speeches and watching her final bill pass, was apoplectic. The changes to the amount of water allowed to be pulled from the Delta were an unacceptable end run around the Endangered Species Act and would have dire consequences for salmon fishermen, she said.

“What right does anybody have to do that in the middle of the night?” Boxer said.

McCarthy said it wasn’t meant to be a personal affront.

“There was not a slight to Boxer in any way, shape or form. This is the water infrastructure bill, this is the place for it to be,” McCarthy said.

He praised Feinstein for always sticking to negotiations, even when they disagreed.

“I know there were times when we were at odds with one another, but that never stopped us from wanting to get a solution,” he said. “In the end, we found this problem was too big to ignore.”

The Dec. 5 announcement was the first major split in years for Boxer and Feinstein. And the tension was noticeable, as each tried to avoid directly criticizing her colleague of more than two decades.

“As far as I knew, she knew,” Feinstein said of Boxer. “My intent is after three years of work to try to get something done, and I knew I had to get it. We are not in charge, and I knew I had to get Republicans in both Houses to support this.”

Throughout the week, Boxer studiously laid the blame at McCarthy’s feet.

“Someone over there named Kevin McCarthy dropped [it] in there in the dead of night!” she said on the Senate floor, pointing toward the House chamber. “It is a disgrace.”

Boxer threatened to filibuster her own infrastructure bill, and spent days urging colleagues to kill it, or at least strip the California provisions. But after seeing it pass the House 360-61 (and House members leave for the year), she knew it was an uphill fight to stop it in the Senate.

Her pleas during hours speaking on the Senate floor Friday about what the bill could mean for the Endangered Species Act weren’t enough to sway her Senate colleagues raring to leave for home.

In the early morning hours Saturday, Boxer cast her final Senate vote. She opposed her own legislation, watching as the Senate voted 78 to 21 to send it to Obama’s desk.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

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

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