After months of quiet backroom discussions, efforts to pass Western drought legislation are getting ready for prime time.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week will hold a long-awaited legislative hearing on the two lead California-specific relief measures, as well as several other bills dealing with Western water issues.
For lawmakers eager to put legislative fixes in place before the winter rainy season begins, the clock is ticking.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the lead negotiator on California water issues in the upper chamber, has spent nearly two years trying to thread the needle to get more water to parched Central Valley farms and Southern California communities, while not fundamentally altering Endangered Species Act protections -- a no-go for many Democrats.
The House-passed bill, H.R. 2898 from Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), goes too far for Feinstein, although she has said it provides a viable starting point.
She introduced her counterproposal, S. 1894, in late July with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). It would make a separate set of operational tweaks along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system, while also pushing funding to hard-hit communities and boosting desalination efforts (E&ENews PM, July 29).
The conventional wisdom has been that any drought legislation for the Golden State will need at least Feinstein's support in order to have a shot at moving through the upper chamber. But several important political dynamics remain in flux.
For one thing, after last year's bid to pass a California bill failed, Murkowski opted to broaden the effort West-wide this year.
"What I've been trying to do is encourage a coalition of interests, and as you do that, you build support for a broader bill," Murkowski said in an interview last week. "So in an effort to help address California's more immediate situation, we also look to the longer term in terms of what goes on with Western water."
A number of items have surfaced in recent months that could give a growing portion of the West a stake in the package.
One likely candidate to make it in: ranking member Maria Cantwell's (D-Wash.) legislation (S. 1694) authorizing a water-sharing agreement in Washington state's agriculture-heavy and drought-hit Yakima River Basin (E&E Daily, July 8).
Time-sensitive water sharing agreements in Oregon's Klamath River Basin that are also in need of congressional authorization could potentially enter the mix, too.
Meanwhile, members of the Arizona delegation, always looking over their shoulders nervously at water-hungry and politically powerful California, have been working on ideas they could seek to add.
Many of their potential amendments pertain to voluntary conservation efforts among the Colorado River Basin's main users, aimed at keeping levels at Lake Mead from dipping below the threshold that triggers restrictions, said Ted Cooke, interim leader of the Central Arizona Project, which moves the state's share of Colorado River water.
"Money, as always, is a big contribution that the government can make," Cooke said.
But, because Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a staunch fiscal conservative, is leading Arizona's efforts on the legislation, he said a range of possible approaches are being considered.
The Nevada delegation, too, has been rallying ideas.
New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall (D) also wants a piece of the action. His state-specific drought measure, S. 1936, is on the agenda for Thursday's hearing.
So, too, are two hydropower bills from Murkowski (S. 1583 and S. 2046) and one from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) (S. 2083).
Members of the Western Governors' Association were on Capitol Hill last week, broadly pressing for further state authority on resource issues.
Asked at a press event what he'd like to see changed in a West-wide drought measure, Gov. Matt Mead (R) of Wyoming said new reservoir projects are too expensive and the permitting process is too time-consuming.
"One thing they certainly could try and do is figure out a process where states, working in coordination with federal partners, could do this [permitting] in a more timely fashion, so that ... it doesn't look like mission impossible," he said. "These things can be done."
McCarthy alters calculus
But the political backdrop for these ongoing conversations changed significantly when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) abruptly announced his retirement and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) became the front-runner to take over the job.
McCarthy's Central Valley district has been hard hit by the entrenched drought, and he has been a key player in the lower chamber's drought relief efforts.
Whether a promotion to speaker would help or hurt his ability to get legislation through now is a point of heated debate behind the scenes.
On one hand, as speaker, he would be in an even more powerful position to choose conference committee members and to bring a final bill to the floor, said Patricia Schifferle, an adviser to California conservation and community groups.
"That's where his power will shine through," she said.
But McCarthy would still have to contend with his party's fiscal conservatives. The House measure alone rang up at more than $700 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and could grow significantly.
A bid to move a pricey bill that would benefit his home district could raise ire among the party's tea party wing.
Some argue that a change of job for McCarthy wouldn't end up being the deciding factor for legislation this year.
"He's used a lot of his clout to get a bad bill done, and we stopped it, and I figure if it's still bad, we'll stop it, regardless of whether he's leader or speaker," Boxer said.
Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, Oct. 8, at 9:30 a.m. in 366 Dirksen.
Reporters Geof Koss and Debra Kahn contributed.