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Low water levels are visible at the Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino. Now in its third straight year of drought conditions, California is experiencing its driest year on record.
As expected, the House of Representatives on Wednesday handily passed the San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act. The measure was decried by Democrats as throwing decades of water law out the window and praised by Republicans as needed to overcome overreaching environmental restrictions.
But the 229-191 vote is just act one in the 2014 edition of water wars.
The only thing that both sides agreed on was that California is in the middle of a severe drought.
In a day of debate on the House floor, Republicans complained of precious water being flushed to the sea. They accused their colleagues of putting fish before families. Democrats labeled the bill the “greatest intrusion in state water rights” ever seen in Congress, turning back decades of agreements.
Freshman Jared Huffman of San Rafael accused his GOP colleagues of using the drought for political purposes, saying the true name of the bill should be "The massive federal pre-emption overreach and water theft act for the elections of 2014."
Seven House Democrats voted for the bill, with Jim Costa of Fresno the only Californian. Two Republicans, neither from California, voted no. The measure was co-sponsored by the entire California GOP delegation.
But even the House GOP acknowledged the bill will likely go nowhere in the Senate. And even if it did, the White House has threatened a veto, echoing Democratic complaints that the bill would “undermine years of collaboration” to develop a water plan.
Turlock Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, issued a challenge to Senate Democrats, saying "If you don’t like our idea, come up with one of your own!”
House Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was more pointed, saying California is "pretty powerful in the Senate." California’s two Senators — Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — head influential committees. Two years ago, when the House passed a similar water bill, McCarthy said no similar legislation was offered in the other chamber. He said the Senate needs to act, "show us where they stand, go to conference, and stand up for the families of California."
Feinstein and Boxer say they will offer their own water bill this week. Several House Democrats from farm country have been working with them. In a statement, Senator Feinstein said she's also working with "federal and state agencies, rural irrigation districts and urban water districts to draft legislation that will minimize controversy yet still maximize water supplies during this drought period.”
No one will publicly say exactly what’s in the bill, except to say it offers "flexibility."
But House Republicans complain that introducing a bill isn’t the same as passing legislation. A spokesman for McCarthy tweeted about the legislation:
A joint conference committee of House and Senate negotiators is where any water agreement would be hammered out. But the party bickering so far shows there's not just a water shortage, but also a shortage of interest in bipartisan compromise.