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Congressional Republicans demand plan for collecting El Niño water

Countdown to Tax Day

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks at a “Countdown to Tax Day” news conference in the Capitol.

(Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

The Republican members of California’s delegation are demanding a government plan to store the deluge of water that could come with El Niño this winter.

Fourteen GOP lawmakers will send a letter to President Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday asking for specifics about how federal and state agencies expect to capture, save and transport water.

A new federal forecast released last week showed El Niño is continuing to strengthen, with experts saying it’s on track to potentially produce record rainfall across the state.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) said the governor has opposed a plan approved by the House, and the Senate hasn’t proposed one of its own.

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“We need him to offer up solutions,” Nunes said in an interview Wednesday. “If it does rain this winter and we let it all go to the ocean again like we did three years ago, the whole state is going to run out of water. A plan is not opposing what we’re trying to propose. He has a responsibility as the governor of California to come clear with what his plan is.”

He said that without a plan, Brown should identify which farms and homes are going to lose and what land is going out of production.

“It’s either-or. You show us how you’re going to get the water, or you show us the impacts and how we’re going to deal with the impacts,” Nunes said.

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The delegation letter specifically asks what plans federal and state agencies have in place to capture precipitation from El Niño, or what the timeline is to develop a plan if one doesn’t already exist. It also asks if the agencies would lift regulations that have limited water exports from northern California to central and southern California.

“We believe that federal and state environmental policies and regulations have negatively impacted California’s current situation by denying us the ability to capture water for human use and consumption now and to better prepare ourselves for situations likes the current drought,” reads the letter, obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

California Natural Resources Agency spokesman Nancy Vogel said by email that the agency is updating its strategic plan to address the chance that the winter months bring a lot of precipitation to the state.

“If we do see heavy precipitation like that of the winters of 1982-83 or 1997, the capacity of the federal and state water projects — not water quality or environmental regulations — is likely to be the limiting factor on how much water is moved into storage,” she said.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) said he hopes the letter prompts state and federal agencies to make it easier to get permits needed to move water south.

“This is a last gasp effort before a lot of additional farms going into bankruptcy,” he said.

California Department of Water Resources spokesman Ted Thomas said it is up to the federal government whether some of those regulations are lifted during the drought, particularly those that limit water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“Relaxing those environmental protections [and] regulations is still being discussed,” he said. “It’s not up to us. That’s a political decision.”

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Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) said California needs to build an infrastructure to store water and get through the drought.

“We have been begging the political powers that be in California for the last 20 years to build a water-positive infrastructure and instead, they have to wait until there is a huge drought to do that,” he said.

An aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said her office had not been informed about the letter.

The delegation has been far from in agreement about the issue all year.

Capturing and storing as much water as possible is critical, said Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), a dairy farmer.

“People in the Central Valley, and throughout California are truly suffering. The concept of diverting that much needed water into the ocean is irrational and infuriating,” Valadao said in a statement.

The state agencies cautioned against too much optimism that heavy rain will resolve the drought.

“A wet year is no guarantee, and even one year will not be enough,” Thomas said.

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sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

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