Putting President Bush in turbulent political seas, the Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed landmark water legislation that would overhaul California's Central Valley Project and provide dozens of major facilities for 17 western states.
The Administration, under intense pressure from western Republican senators to approve the bill, showed signs of retreating from earlier assurances that Bush would veto "unacceptable" reforms of the huge Central Valley Project, which controls 20% of developed water in California.
Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., who had said he opposed the legislation and would recommend a veto, said through a spokesman Thursday that his office was analyzing the bill to determine its impact on all western states.
"It is clear to many that this bill is not in the best interests of all the people of California," said Lujan spokesman Steve Goldstein. "The difficulty is that several senators who have their own pet projects in the bill are calling the White House urging the President to sign because they want their particular item."
The sweeping changes to the Central Valley Project are supported by urban water districts, by environmentalists and by many of the state's business interests, but are vigorously opposed by Gov. Pete Wilson, Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.) and the state's powerful agriculture industry.
Wilson telephoned Bush early Thursday morning to "express his displeasure with the legislation" and ask for a veto, according to gubernatorial spokesman Dan Schnur. The President replied that he was "weighing his options" on the bill, Schnur said.
The 83-8 Senate vote was a bitter defeat for Seymour, the appointed senator who failed in his efforts to prevent the Senate from considering the bill.
The bill's chief sponsor, House Interior Chairman George Miller (D-Martinez), said he was hopeful that Bush would recognize that the state needs a new balanced approach to water policy.
"Today, the people of California--all the people of California--finally win the big one," Miller said. "The overwhelming bipartisan vote should send a signal to the President that the western senators believe this is a very, very important piece of legislation. This really is about the future of the West and certainly the future of California."
Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), chairman of the water and power subcommittee who steered the legislation through the Senate, said: "This is a victory of the many over the interests of the few."
Seymour said: "I feel as though I may be the lone voice defending the interests of California. . . . This (bill) will do nothing more than ignite another water war in California."
Seymour predicted widespread economic devastation in Central Valley farming communities and numerous lawsuits if the President signs the bill.
The legislation calls for making the restoration of threatened fish and wildlife species a top priority for a project that has supplied the agriculture-rich Central Valley with cheap and plentiful water over the past half-century. The Central Valley Project is a federally owned and operated system that pumps Sierra-fed water through a 500-mile network of dams, reservoirs and canals to irrigate about 3 million acres of farmland.
Under the legislation, urban agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District would be permitted for the first time to purchase project water from willing farmers. The bill also requires the Interior Department to provide 800,000 acre-feet of water to meet environmental needs and establish a $50-million annual fund to finance fish and wildlife restoration activities. Last year, the project provided about 4.5 million acre-feet to agriculture, municipal and industrial users.
Environmental groups were ecstatic with the lopsided margin of Thursday's Senate vote. The eight senators who voted against it are Republicans.
"It's a great day for the Golden State," said Barry Nelson, director of Save the San Francisco Bay Assn. "This is the first step on a new road with a CVP that can serve the whole state, not just a few growers."
Under current law, irrigators receive highly subsidized water through 40-year contracts that are automatically renewed on roughly the same terms and rates as when they were negotiated in the 1940s.
Growers contend that they will receive no Central Valley Project water delivery under the legislation because of the effects of a six-year drought. In the past two years, farmers received only 50% and 25% of normal deliveries.
"Water is the essential ingredient to life in the Central Valley," said Phil Larson, a farmer in Kerman. "When one out of every three jobs in the Central Valley depends on farming, you can see that cutting off water will affect thousands and thousands of families."
Opponents argue that the bill would cause an annual loss of $4 billion in farming income and tens of thousands of agriculture jobs. But supporters of reform say such forecasts ignore the new economic activity that would be stimulated by spreading federal water throughout the state.
"California is a changing and dynamic economy," Miller said. "For that economy to prosper, we need to have flexibility to be able to transition water from the lock that agriculture has had over it for the last 50 years into the rest of the economy."
Miller was accused by Seymour of holding the package of popular western water projects in other states "hostage" to the Central Valley Project provisions.
"This was literally jammed down the throat of this senator and the House of Representatives," said Seymour. He added that the Central Valley Project measure would have failed in the House and Senate if voted upon separately.
"That's politics," said Miller. "This is a political arena. As my father once said: 'You can't take politics out of politics.' "
While bemoaning the inclusion of the Central Valley Project in the reclamation authorization bill, several western senators made it clear that they would support the entire water package.
Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), who helped negotiate the water package as the ranking minority member of the water and power subcommittee, issued an ominous warning to opponents of the Central Valley Project sections during debate on the Senate floor.
"I believe this is the best deal California is going to get from a Congress that now believes it knows better than the state itself how to handle its water," said Wallop, whose state would receive funding for the Buffalo Bill water project in the bill.
Retiring Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) has worked more than two decades to see completion of the Central Utah Project, one of the last giant federal water projects under construction. The bill earmarks $922 million for the Utah project.
"It is not assured the President will sign this bill," said Garn, one of several western Republicans who met this week with White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III to lobby for the President's signature. "I hope he will because, overall, it is so much better than the negatives within it. Plus, there are so many states involved that I hope he would not veto it over the California objection and abandon the rest of us."
A White House spokeswoman, Laura Melillo, said that because the White House had not received the bill, "it was too premature" to declare whether it would be vetoed.
With Vice President Dan Quayle visiting the Central Valley on Wednesday and Interior Secretary Lujan in Ontario and Labor Secretary Lynn Martin in San Francisco on Thursday, the White House was certain to get plenty of feedback from California before making the decision, an Administration official said.
"There are a lot of competing pressures here," the official said.
Times Sacramento bureau chief George Skelton contributed to this report.
Redistribution of California Water
The massive Central Valley Project distributes about 20 % of California's developed water. Western water legislation passed by Congress and awaiting President Bush's approval would make sweeping changes in the way that water is distributed.
KEY POINTS IN THE WATER BILL
Allows Central Valley Project water to be voluntarily sold anywhere in California by contract holders. This provision was sought by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which hopes to buy large quantities of Central Valley Project water from farmers to alleviate urban water shortages. The secretary of the Interior must prevent excess profiteering by those selling water. Current law prohibits transfer of Central Valley Project water to those who do not hold contracts.
Makes the restoration and protection of fish and wildlife habitat destroyed by Central Valley Project operations a priority for the first time. This includes doubling historic fish populations in Central Valley rivers and streams by 2002. The current primary purpose of the Central Valley Project is irrigation.
Sets aside 800,000 acre-feet of Central Valley Project water to meet the project's new environmental and wildlife purposes. Current law provides no such guaranteed water delivery for the environment.
Establishes an annual $50-million restoration fund financed by fees on Central Valley Project water and power sales to pay for fish and wildlife restoration activities. No such environmental fees are levied under current law.
Renews existing Central Valley Project water contracts for a guaranteed 25 years and provides additional 25-year extensions at the discretion of the secretary of the Interior. This ends the current practice of automatic renewal of 40-year contracts at fixed prices.
Slashes government water subsidies for nearly all Central Valley Project customers. Fixed prices are replaced with a three-tier pricing system that encourages conservation. All new water contracts would contain provisions reducing water deliveries to meet the project's new environmental purposes.
Prevents the government from entering into new contracts for Central Valley Project water for any purpose other than fish and wildlife until the restoration goals are achieved. Exceptions are made for contracts to ameliorate the effects of drought and other conditions. No such prohibition is in effect now.
OTHER PARTS OF THE WATER BILL
Authorizes $922 million for the Central Utah Project, one of the last giant federal water projects under construction.
Protection of the Grand Canyon from environmental damage caused by fluctuating water releases from Glen Canyon Dam.
Authorizes federal portion of funding for design, planning and construction of a multipurpose facility to improve water quality and store water in the San Gabriel Valley ground water basin.
$80-million expansion of Buffalo Bill dam and reservoir in Wyoming, including construction of recreation facilities.
A $10-million saline water research project in the Salton Sea area in California.
A project to develop 120,000 acre-feet per year of reclaimed water in Southern California to offset water diversions from the environmentally sensitive Mono Lake Basin.
A comprehensive federal review of Western water resource problems and programs administered by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of the Interior.
Source: House Interior Committee
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