California Senators Remain Split on Drought Bill

Dianne Feinstein wants to move a compromise bill, but environmental provisions have Barbara Boxer holding off.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
May 17, 2016, 9:30 p.m.

As Cali­for­nia’s re­cord-break­ing drought stretches in­to an­oth­er year, so does Con­gress’s at­tempt to ease the state’s pain.

House Re­pub­lic­ans last year pushed through a bill that would in­crease wa­ter flows to cer­tain areas of the state, but ne­go­ti­ations with the Sen­ate fell apart amid Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion. Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein is now push­ing her own com­prom­ise meas­ure, one that she said would “ac­com­plish the dual roles of max­im­iz­ing wa­ter sup­plies and pro­tect­ing the en­vir­on­ment.”

But the nature of a com­prom­ise means some mem­bers won’t be happy, and Fein­stein still doesn’t have one key sup­port­er on board: fel­low Cali­for­nia Demo­crat Bar­bara Box­er.

“I sup­port the vast ma­jor­ity of it, but there are a couple of areas where I dis­agree,” Box­er told Na­tion­al Journ­al. Her con­cerns primar­ily deal with in­creased pump­ing levels through the Sac­ra­mento-San Joa­quin Delta, the hub of the state’s wa­ter de­liv­ery that also houses some en­dangered fish spe­cies.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists like­wise haven’t come out in full sup­port of the bill. The Si­erra Club’s Cali­for­nia dir­ect­or, Kath­ryn Phil­lips, called it “ser­i­ously flawed” and “still too re­li­ant on old ideas that simply con­tin­ue an un­sus­tain­able wa­ter sys­tem.” While prais­ing the bill’s fund­ing for wa­ter re­cyc­ling and ef­fi­ciency meas­ures, the green group said the bill would fund de­sal­in­a­tion plants op­posed by some en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and could open up new wa­ter ex­ports that would en­danger the San Fran­cisco Bay Delta.  

Fein­stein’s bill got its first hear­ing Tues­day be­fore a Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources sub­com­mit­tee, where mem­bers also con­sidered a hand­ful of oth­er bills meant to ad­dress the drought plaguing the West. Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Re­pub­lic­an, said the bills “form the basis” for a le­gis­lat­ive pack­age to deal with the West­ern drought.

This is Fein­stein’s latest try at a bill, one she said comes after two years and 28 drafts. It would lift lim­its on wa­ter ex­ports to the south of the state and au­thor­ize $1.3 bil­lion for vari­ous wa­ter pro­grams, in­clud­ing con­tro­ver­sial work to draw wa­ter from the ocean and re­move its salt. The bill also pushes for the gov­ern­ment to com­plete feas­ib­il­ity stud­ies for wa­ter-stor­age pro­jects.

Fein­stein told Na­tion­al Journ­al be­fore Tues­day’s hear­ing that there was broad sup­port from wa­ter agen­cies for the bill, and she sub­mit­ted let­ters from 104 agen­cies and in­di­vidu­als back­ing it. Eight House Demo­crats from her state also signed a let­ter sup­port­ing the bill.

“I need the com­mit­tee, so we’ll see,” she said.

Reach­ing a com­prom­ise meant leav­ing some po­ten­tial sup­port­ers un­happy, which could stop the bill be­fore it even gets off the ground. Con­gress has been un­able to thread the needle between the de­mands of mov­ing more wa­ter to farm­ers and pro­tec­tion of en­dangered fish that live in the del­ic­ate Delta eco­sys­tem.

The House bill that passed largely along party lines would in­crease wa­ter ex­ports and sidestep some en­dangered-spe­cies pro­tec­tions. Bicam­er­al ne­go­ti­ations to reach a com­prom­ise bill for in­clu­sion in last year’s om­ni­bus pack­age fell apart in Decem­ber, but sim­il­ar lan­guage was in­cluded in the House en­ergy and wa­ter ap­pro­pri­ations bill (the Sen­ate-passed ver­sion did not in­clude any drought lan­guage).

Rep. Jared Huff­man, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat, said that made it even more cru­cial that Fein­stein’s bill fa­vor en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tions.

“This isn’t the fi­nal product of a com­prom­ise with Re­pub­lic­ans; this is the start­ing point for the hand­ful of Demo­crats con­cerned about this,” Huff­man said. “It will only get worse, and it has the po­ten­tial to get much worse.

“Ninety per­cent of this bill would move things for­ward that would help solve this prob­lem,” he ad­ded, “but that oth­er 10 per­cent re­flects, in my view and the view of many of my col­leagues, … bad policy and a very troub­ling pre­ced­ent.” 

Adding to Huff­man’s con­cerns, Rep. John Gara­mendi on Tues­day in­tro­duced com­pan­ion le­gis­la­tion to Fein­stein’s in the House, prompt­ing a state­ment from 13 West­ern Demo­crats op­pos­ing the bill’s “modi­fic­a­tion of en­vir­on­ment­al laws.”

The de­bate comes as Cali­for­nia enters its fifth year of drought. Gov. Jerry Brown this month is­sued an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der mak­ing per­man­ent some wa­ter-con­ser­va­tion meas­ures, like hos­ing down side­walks. And there’s still no easy res­ol­u­tion to the le­gis­lat­ive battle over what Fein­stein called “prob­ably the hard­est bill I’ve worked on in my 23 years in the Sen­ate.”

The White House last sum­mer sent $110 mil­lion in aid to West­ern states for the drought. A bi­par­tis­an wa­ter-re­sources bill that passed the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee also in­cludes sup­port for wa­ter re­cyc­ling and de­sal­in­a­tion pro­grams.  

How Fein­stein’s bill fits in­to a broad­er West­ern pack­age re­mains to be seen. A lar­ger bill would likely get broad­er sup­port in the Sen­ate and bring Re­pub­lic­ans on board. But Sen. Ron Wyden said that strik­ing the right bal­ance will be a struggle—something Fein­stein knows all too well.

“Nobody gets everything they want when deal­ing with tough re­sources is­sues. Nobody gets everything they be­lieve they ought to have,” Wyden said at Tues­day’s hear­ing. “The ques­tion is, can you get enough to strike a bal­ance between the vari­ous in­terests that we all care about?”

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