Feinstein, Boxer need Murkowski’s help to move drought measure

By Annie Snider, Debra Kahn, Anne C. Mulkern | 07/30/2015 07:34 AM EDT

The California drought measure unveiled yesterday by the state’s two Democratic senators served as their bid in a political gamble where a Republican now holds the most important cards.

The California drought measure unveiled yesterday by the state’s two Democratic senators served as their bid in a political gamble where a Republican now holds the most important cards.

The political aim of the measure from Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer is to get language folded into West-wide water legislation that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has said she intends to bring to the floor this year. That Murkowski bill is likely to serve as a vehicle for several state-specific drought relief measures, as well as overarching federal policy changes.

"We welcome Senator Feinstein’s contribution," Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said yesterday. "The chairman worked with her closely on a solution, and certainly Feinstein’s input will be critical — central to whatever solution the Senate comes up with this time."


At the heart of the measure from Feinstein and Boxer is a series of operational tweaks aimed at moving more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to parched farms and communities in central and Southern California. The delta is the main hub of the state’s water system, supplying 25 million people and 700,000 acres of farmland.

Those provisions hew closely to language hashed out by Boxer and Feinstein last year in a bill that passed the Senate by unanimous consent but morphed during failed negotiations with House Republicans (E&E Daily, May 23, 2014). Those negotiations ultimately tore the two California senators apart on the issue.

Feinstein has been working on a successor to last year’s bills for months. When she announced Boxer as her co-sponsor in yesterday’s version, it surprised some stakeholders who saw the negotiations fall apart late last year over proposed changes to endangered species protections. Boxer had staked out a stauncher position on environmental protections.

The language in the new measure essentially hits "reset" to when the pair of upper chamber Democrats were last on the same page about how to approach the state’s historic drought, particularly with respect to balancing endangered species protections with emergency water needs. The bill in addition to making changes on water pumping rules would allow water transfers between sellers and buyers to "help stretch California’s water supplies in dry times."

The new bill also adds a number of longer-term provisions aimed at boosting desalination technology, water reuse projects and conservation measures.

"I am pleased to be sponsoring Senator Feinstein’s new water bill, which addresses California’s devastating drought in a multi-faceted way," Boxer said in a statement. "I am now sponsoring three drought bills because of the enormity of this crisis, and I hope we can advance the best of these measures to help alleviate the pain being felt across California."

California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird cheered the bid to bring federal money for drought fixes in the state.

"We welcome efforts to strengthen and support, with federal funding, what state voters overwhelmingly backed in Proposition 1," Laird said, referring to a $7.5 billion bond measure voters approved last November. "Many provisions of this proposal — such as recycling, conservation, integrated regional water management and water storage — align with near-term goals of the California Water Action Plan to move California toward water sustainability."

The fight now will then be over what provisions make their way into Murkowski’s expected West-wide water measure. The first hints of what direction Murkowski may go on California issues are likely to come at a hearing she has said she plans to hold in September on the Feinstein-Boxer bill as well as the House’s measure from Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.).

Although Feinstein’s support will be key to any California-specific provisions, the politics have changed significantly since Boxer and Feinstein passed their four-page emergency relief measure through the upper chamber last May.

With Republicans now in control, the extra funding sought by the Democrats for water conservation and technology is likely to face an uphill climb. Feinstein’s office estimates that the measure would have a price tag of $1.3 billion over 10 years. Meanwhile, the approach to endangered species protections that the House bill took, which enraged many Democrats in that chamber, is apt to find a more sympathetic audience in the Senate than in the past.

Differences from Valadao measure

The bill appears aimed at assuaging critics of the House measure from Valadao, H.R. 2898, which passed the lower chamber last month under a veto threat from President Obama.

Environmental and fishermen’s groups, as well as lower-chamber Democrats, fiercely opposed the House-passed bill as an opportunistic bid to dismantle the Endangered Species Act. While that measure would not rewrite the language of the 1973 law itself, it would override some of the key agency opinions about specific endangered species protections at water delivery projects (Greenwire, July 24).

During the bill announcement, Feinstein and Boxer promised to "help move water efficiently to those areas where it is most needed" while remaining "consistent with environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, as well as all biological opinions."

But some Democrats are already contending that the Feinstein-Boxer bill leans too closely to the Valadao measure. The statement from the two senators noted four parts of their measure similar to Valadao’s, including monitoring for smelt. During periods when water turbidity is high and smelt are likely to move near pumps, scientists must daily monitor for the presence of the fish, the senators’ legislation said. Pumps may only run at high levels when smelt are not present.

"I am very concerned about some provisions included in the bill that are similar to the House Republican water legislation that I strongly opposed," said Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who was one of 19 California House members who warned Feinstein and Boxer away from the Valadao bill in a letter last week. "Responsible solutions that address short- and long-term water shortages in the West should reflect input from all affected … without prioritizing certain economies or geographic regions at the expense of others."

Environmentalists who have bitterly opposed the House bills are also wary of provisions that would allow changes to pumping limits in the delta.

"We were grateful for both senators’ strong commitment to protecting the environment and not waiving environmental laws or the biological opinions, and we’re carefully reviewing the bill," said Doug Obegi, a Natural Resources Defense Council water attorney. "There are some elements of the bill that look really promising, like authorization of water recycling programs, and other provisions we’re going to need to carefully scrutinize. We’ll evaluate this bill on the merits."

A Central Valley water district that has been active on both the House and Feinstein’s past drought efforts quickly praised the bill.

"Westlands looks forward to quick passage of the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015 by the Senate and to subsequent discussions in conference to reconcile the two bills," said Gayle Holman, spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, a major agricultural water contractor in the San Joaquin Valley.

Western Growers, a trade association of California, Arizona and Colorado farmers, praised the senators for acting but pushed for a broader legislative package.

"Our attention must also turn to passage of a Western water bill to address the needs of other states being affected by the drought," said President and CEO Tom Nassif.
"Any effort aimed at helping California must be combined with efforts to devise solutions to problems faced throughout the West as a result of long-term drought. For example, the Colorado River Basin is currently experiencing its driest period in 50 years."