Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

The life — and death — of a surprise drought measure

Bipartisan opposition sank the surprise drought provision.
Bipartisan opposition sank the surprise drought provision.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

There are lots of ways to get what you want on Capitol Hill. 

Central Valley lawmakers want more water for farmers in their district. And this week, they tried some creative lawmaking to break the logjam over legislation.

The House passed a drought relief bill back in February. It was backed by the entire California Republican delegation – plus Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. The measure sets aside decades-old water agreements and environmental protections and increases reservoir storage.

The Senate passed a very different measure in May, authored by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Environmentalists aren’t entirely happy with Feinstein’s bill either, but fellow Californian Barbara Boxer – a co-sponsor of the Senate drought bill – says they got "almost everything they wanted."

House Republicans called it "a starting point," but say it fails to address "our state’s long-term needs."

In a situation such as this, the next move should be a conference committee where differences are pounded out and a compromise is reached. However, this summer has been spent behind closed doors, as staffers and lawmakers try to come up with a strategy.

One such strategy came to light this week: insert language in a spending bill.

Congress has been working hard on appropriations bills for everything from the Pentagon to the Internal Revenue Service. Tucked away on page 19 of the energy and water appropriations measure, language appeared that would allow 90 percent of the money set aside for the California Bay Delta Restoration to be used to "acquire water from willing sellers for the purpose of supplementing water made available to water service and repayment contractors anywhere within the Central Valley Project service area." Patricia Schifferle of the environmental group Pacific Advocates translates: "It’s going to redirect decades of required mitigation money to a select group of south of the Delta exporters, including Westlands."

The Westlands Water District spent $600,000 last year on lobbying in Washington. A company executive made the trip to Washington recently, participating in meetings on Capitol Hill.

But Wednesday morning, as the bill was being "marked up" – the opportunity for members to add amendments and adjust the language before voting – that paragraph on page 19 was eliminated.

Congressman David Valadao (R-Hanford), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, says a "manager’s amendment pulled it out." Why? Valadao says they got a lot of bipartisan pushback.

Some of that pushback came from northern California liberals like Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), George Miller (D-Martinez), and John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove). Garamendi says as a member of the minority party, they’ve been relying on Op-eds in California papers to give them some clout.

But some pushback came from GOP members from other parts of the country. There’s supposed to be a ban on congressional earmarks - legislation that favors a particular part of the country.

So the California water language died a quiet death.

Fresno Democrat Jim Costa says drought conversations have been on hold, pending the expected election Thursday of fellow Central Valley lawmaker Kevin McCarthy as the new House Majority Leader.

But don’t expect the issue to disappear. Valadao promises, "we’re going to look for other opportunities."