It's become a familiar pattern in Washington: inaction on Capitol Hill that leads to executive orders from the White House. Usually, Congress complains. This time, lawmakers are asking the Obama administration to take the lead.
In a week where Northern California is expecting a pair of storms (a rarity these days), Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and a bipartisan group of House members are asking a pair of cabinet secretaries to capture and move "a sizable amount" of water to farms and communities "that desperately need it."
The letter warns of "a disaster of great magnitude" unfolding in California and is signed by Feinstein, Republican House Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, GOP Reps. Jeff Denham of Turlock, Devin Nunes of Tulare, David Valadao of Hanford, Ken Calvert of Riverside, and Democrat Jim Costa of Fresno. They urge Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to evaluate "operating criteria" for both the federal and state water projects "to capture the maximum amount of water from this week's storm" and get it to the people who need it most. The letter insists that existing protections for endangered fish are "more than adequate" while farmers are facing "potential devastation." The lawmakers say there's a "significant imbalance of regulatory burdens."
Environmentalists are not pleased.
Patricia Schifferle of Pacific Advocates says she has "utter disgust and disappointment" that Senator Feinstein has joined Republicans calling for water diversions at the expense of the Sacramento Delta estuary. She says there's "little evidence" to support the lawmakers' contention that there's no danger to the salmon, sturgeon, smelt, and other fish. She says extra water flowing into the Delta is needed for both water quality and to assist an ecosystem equally hit hard by drought.
Ron Stork, head of Friends of the River, calls the letter "grandstanding" and says both the state and federal reservoirs are releasing the bare minimum of water now, "a situation not expected to change with and after these storms."
There was no comment from either cabinet secretary.
But even if White House officials follow the suggestions made by California lawmakers, it won't solve the long-term challenges presented by the drought. John Lawrence, the former chief-of-staff to Nancy Pelosi with years of tracking water legislation on Capitol Hill, says long term, farmers and regulators need to consider retiring some farm land, look at drainage control and groundwater management, and discuss pricing reform. Otherwise, he says, growers will "skirt by, get a little water this year, and push to the bottom of the proverbial barrel when it starts raining again."