After vowing to block a GOP plan to help farmers deal with the California drought, congressional Democrats have now unveiled their own drought proposal – a more modest proposal that would not suspend any state or federal environmental laws.
The senators from California and Oregon, all Democrats, put their proposal forward Tuesday. Their $300-million package focused mostly on bolstering emergency programs to bring relief.
Democrats have been under pressure to act after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) traveled to Bakersfield last month and committed to moving a bill that would relax environmental laws so farms could get more water. Soon after, the House passed the measure. A large group of California Democrats in Congress declared the GOP plan a water “grab” by big Central Valley agricultural interests that would make the water emergency worse in other communities.
The plan unveiled by the Senate Democrats on Tuesday would give farms access to millions of dollars in grants and other funds, but it would not divert large amounts of water their way.
“The goal of this bill is to bring us together and address a crisis, rather than divide us,” said a statement from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Her colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who has helped broker some of the most significant water deals, is also a sponsor. “This bill provides operational flexibility to increase water supplies and primes federal agencies to make the best use of any additional rain,” Boxer said in her statement.
The legislation would give federal authorities flexibility to send more water out of the Sacramento Delta than would be permitted under normal conditions, so long as endangered fish are not harmed. It also puts a priority on certain grants so funds get to communities that are at risk of running short of water they need to meet basic public health and safety needs. Just before the latest big storm arrived, at least 10 California communities were threatened with running out of drinking water within 60 days.
Along with Boxer and Feinstein, the proposal unveiled Tuesday is also sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats.