House OKs major change to water laws


The House approved a bill Wednesday that rewrites two decades of water law in California, wiping out environmental protections and dropping reforms of federal irrigation policy that have long irritated agribusiness in the Central Valley.

The legislation passed on a mostly party line vote of 246-175 in the Republican-controlled House. But its prospects of becoming law are poor. The White House has issued a veto threat, and it is unlikely to survive the Democratic-controlled Senate, where both of California’s senators have vowed to work against it.

“It essentially says farmers will get theirs and nothing for anybody else,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).


Despite the long odds, Republicans brought the bill to the House floor to highlight differences between the parties in an election year. Republicans contend that environmental regulations are killing jobs.

“The senators don’t understand that they’re going to put tens of thousands of people out of work,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who once brought a bowl of fish to a congressional hearing to argue that the interests of fish were being elevated over those of farmers. Nunes, the proposal’s lead author, said he will work hard to advance the proposal, including attaching it to other legislation.

“If the two senators think they can sit back and do nothing, they’ve got another thing coming,” he said. “Because there’s going to be absolute hell to pay.”

The bill, called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, kills a settlement that has launched one of the most ambitious river restoration projects in the West: the rewatering of a dried-up stretch of the San Joaquin River to revive salmon runs. It guts a 20-year-old federal law that set aside a large portion of federal irrigation supplies in California for environmental purposes and toughened the terms of federal irrigation contracts.

The legislation also rolls back fish protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to those stemming from a 1994 agreement between the state and federal government and it preempts California water law.

“Part of what it tries to do is turn back time,” said UC Berkeley law professor Holly Doremus. “It’s a remarkable overreach. It tries to give the irrigators everything. They threw all of the wish list in here.”

The bill’s passage highlights the growing influence of Central Valley Republicans after the GOP takeover of the House last year. The House Majority Whip is Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, a co-author of the legislation. Rep. Tom McClintock of Granite Bay is chairman of a subcommittee that oversees water policy.

Backers blamed environmental protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the state’s water hub, for a “man-made drought” that has cut irrigation deliveries, left fields unplanted and hurt the San Joaquin Valley economy.

“For too long this man-made drought in California has been ignored,” McCarthy said during floor debate.

Aside from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and national farm groups, supporters listed by Nunes were primarily from the Central Valley, including such agricultural powerhouses as the Harris Ranch and Westlands Water District.

Ten Democrats supported the bill, including Californians Joe Baca of Rialto, Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Jim Costa of Fresno. One Republican voted no.

Cardoza said that “rather than doing the hard work of reaching across the aisle to craft a truly bipartisan bill that could have been signed into law, we have passed legislation that is unlikely to see the light of day in the Senate.”

Opponents warned that if Congress overrides state water law in California, it can do so elsewhere too. “What happens in California won’t stay in California,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek). “This bill, if it ever becomes law, will ignite California’s next water war and the fights will spread across the West.”

The Western States Water Council, which has 18 member states, opposed the measure. California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris wrote a letter to lawmakers saying the bill would impose unprecedented federal constraints on the state’s ability to manage its natural resources and “abrogate long-standing provisions of California law designed to protect” them.

Republicans argued that the federal government already has a heavy hand in setting California water policy, dedicating water to the environment. “Yet when it comes to protecting property and water rights on an already preempted California system,” the state complains, said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.