Politics, government and public life for Southern California

CA senators introduce water bill; could the drought influence midterms in California?

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Washington has discovered California’s drought.

The House of Representatives passed a measure last week. California’s U.S. Senators have now introduced their own water measure. And on Friday, President Obama travels to California for drought talk.

Might Washington's attention to California’s water woes make a difference in the voting booth?

The Senate bill, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014, is co-sponsored by California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. The bill would make it easier for federal agencies to move water around to where it’s most needed, but still adhering to the Endangered Species Act.

Feinstein calls the elements in their bill “practical things” to increase the supply of water — not by an “astronomic” amount, but one that could provide farmers south of the Sacramento Delta with 30-40 percent of their allocation. There’s also $300 million in emergency funds for farmers and to provide drinking water for consumers.

House Republicans passed their own water bill last week. It pre-empts environmental restoration and rewrites California water laws.  

Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno was one of a handful of Democrats who voted for that bill, co-sponsored by the entire California GOP delegation. Now he’s introducing his own water bill, the twin to the Democrats' Senate legislation. Costa says Congress can “continue to posture, but that doesn’t get anything done.” He adds that fellow Democrats Tony Cardenas of Los Angeles and Sam Farr of Santa Cruz are co-sponsors and two of his Republican colleagues, Jeff Denham and David Valadao of the Central Valley, say they’re taking a look at it. Costa has asked the President to endorse the bill when he visits Fresno on Friday.

But what chance do any of these bills have of becoming law? Professor Thomas Holyoke, who teaches water and politics at Fresno State University, calls the House GOP bill “dead on arrival in the Senate.” And Holyoke adds the GOP-led House will be less than inclined to take up bill sponsored by a member of the minority party — meaning Costa's legislation.

And the prospects for the Feinstein/Boxer Senate bill? Granite Bay Republican Tom McClintock says the House has been waiting two years for the Senate to tackle the drought. He accuses California’s two Senators of being “embarrassed,” so they finally introduced a bill. The next step, he says, is to pass the bill and send it back to the House where “we can start working on differences.”

And what happens if nothing passes? University of Southern California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says there are “clear signals” that pollsters or someone in the White House believes California’s drought “may come into play as an influence on the mid-term elections.” That’s why the President will be visiting California on Friday.

But Bebitch Jeffe isn’t convinced it’ll be an election issue. Jack Pitney, who teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College, agrees. He says, “People don’t necessarily draw connections between Congress and what comes out of their water tap.” Also, he adds, most members of Congress are safe incumbents.

Not so in California’s Central Valley.

Democrats make up less than half of Costa’s Fresno district. Republicans are a minority in both Denham's and Valadao’s districts. Fresno State's Holyoke says that’s why the GOP allowed Valadao to be the sponsor of the House water legislation. Holyoke says it’s not so important that legislation gets passed or even that it solves the problem. The worst thing a politician can do, he says, is to be seen “not doing something when you have disastrous conditions.” 

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