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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