WESTERN WATER

Drought bill 'slight' likely to push negotiations to 2016

Infighting among California's congressional delegation has likely put off a legislative attempt to deal with the state's historic drought for another year.

After an apparent attempt to circumvent the state's senators in inserting drought language into the omnibus spending bill, House Republicans on Friday blamed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for the breakdown in talks (Greenwire, Dec. 11).

"The deal was close to being done, but unfortunately, Senator Feinstein took umbrage over something that occurred in a closed-door meeting," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.). "That small slight was not worth throwing away all that we achieved."

The "slight" was that Feinstein's name was attached to draft language that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) introduced Dec. 4 as a potential addition to the omnibus bill (E&ENews PM, Dec. 4). Feinstein blasted the move, saying the language didn't reflect her position, and withdrew her support for including it in the must-pass spending bill.

"There were at least a half-dozen items in the bill that I had rejected and that would have drawn objections from state or federal agencies -- some of them would likely violate environmental law," she said in a statement last week. "Several more provisions were still being negotiated and hadn't been reviewed by state or federal stakeholders."

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Feinstein and House Republicans have been working for the past two years on legislation dealing with California's ongoing drought, now in its fourth year. One of the main points of contention has been over whether to maintain existing Endangered Species Act protections for fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the state's main water delivery hub.

This year's work was substantively a reprise of last year's efforts, although the endgame differed slightly. House Republicans tried to insert drought language into the omnibus government spending bill last December, as well, but failed after Feinstein, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the White House came out in opposition to the House-passed bill (E&ENews PM, Dec. 9, 2014).

This year, the sides appeared closer to agreement on the language of the bill, although there were still conflicts over the Republicans' main objective -- tweaks to operational criteria in the delta that would send more water south to farms and cities. The latest public language would have directed managers of the state and federal water delivery systems to maximize deliveries from the delta, especially during the first few storms of the year, in addition to boosting water storage, reuse and recycling projects and assistance for small, low-income communities affected by the drought.

Talks continued after the House-Senate rupture, and Feinstein expressed optimism Friday ahead of the Republicans' news conference.

"We've worked hard all week to resolve these outstanding provisions, and I believe we've come to closure on virtually all of them," she said. "I expect that by early next week we'll have a bill that the state and federal government can sign off on. At that point, I plan to present the bill to Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman [Lisa] Murkowski [R-Alaska] and ranking member [Maria] Cantwell [D-Wash.] and discuss the best way to move the bill forward through regular order."

But Calvert was circumspect on Feinstein's proposal to move a bill via regular order.

"This is the first I've heard of that," he said. "I wish her luck."

It was unclear whether the Obama administration had reviewed the latest bill. Calvert said the administration had indicated that the language did not violate the Endangered Species Act or the biological opinions protecting delta smelt and chinook salmon under the law but then "walked it back." Feinstein said the language hadn't been reviewed by the White House or by California officials, but others said that it had gone through agency review.

House Democrats expressed frustration at the proceedings.

"The Republican response to our senators this morning was more than disappointing," said Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who last week led a letter from 21 House Democrats to President Obama asking him to keep the drought language out of the omnibus. "Despite their statements, I do not agree that this was an open and transparent process. These unfinished negotiations did not receive final sign-off from our Senate and House colleagues and certainly did not result in a fully vetted bipartisan product."

McNerney said he would introduce a bill early next year promoting "forward-thinking water and energy policies along with a focus on regional self-sufficiency and water infrastructure."

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.

Twitter: @debra_kahn Email: dkahn@eenews.net

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