Congress running out of time to reach compromise on drought relief legislation

More than 58 percent of the state is under the most severe category that the drought monitor issues.
More than 58 percent of the state is under the most severe category that the drought monitor issues. U.S. Drought Monitor

It's summer recess in Washington. Congress has been gone all month, but talks continue behind the scenes to try to find a compromise on drought legislation. 

The House and Senate each passed their own version of drought legislation earlier this year; but the two measures are very different and members left town before reaching a compromise. Still, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare says that doesn’t mean everything will stay frozen until September. "The staff talks, members talk, there’s talk by phone."

Just what they’re all talking about has been a closely guarded secret. Lawmakers have uncharacteristically kept their mouths shut on the details, as staffers circulate various drafts via email. At last week's Lake Tahoe summit, Senator Feinstein said they're "going back and forth... hopefully we will have something in the next couple weeks."

Dianne Feinstein’s 16 page Senate bill is a short term measure. The 70 page House version, co-sponsored by the entire California Republican delegation, plus Fresno Democrat Jim Costa, rewrites water contracts and sets aside environmental protections. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare labels Feinstein’s bill as the starting point, "just a bill to make something happen."

Redding Republican Doug LaMalfa says there’s been “good interaction” with Senator Feinstein’s office. California’s other Senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, heads the Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer’s office says she’s been engaged in the process, giving feedback and offering ideas. But mostly, LaMalfa says, “we want Senator Feinstein to be the lead California senator” on water negotiations. Over her career in Congress, the Center for Responsive Politics says Feinstein has received $1.5 million in campaign contributions from agribusiness. Boxer has received more than half a million from environmental groups.

LaMalfa wants water storage to be part of the package. That doesn’t sit well with Northern California Democrats, who say stopping up water flows will hurt the fisheries in their districts. They also complain that they’ve been left out of the closed-door negotiations. Even Southern Californians like Grace Napolitano of Santa Fe Springs have groused that neither the House nor Senate bill does much for folks who live south of the Tehachapis – a point she made to Senator Feinstein. “I did tell her at one point that we felt that we were – not necessarily being ignored,” said Napolitano, “but some of the issues that we have were not looked at or included.”

Napolitano sponsored the House version of another water bill, co-sponsored on the Senate side by California Senators Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. That four billion dollar measure would provide incentives for conservation and improved groundwater management and storage. But it has only Democratic co-sponsors at this point. Napolitano says she’ll work on GOP support in September.

Meanwhile, time is running out for Congress to do anything. It’s an election year. That means the House has just 12 working days left before they return to their districts to campaign for re- election. LaMalfa says he’s “slightly optimistic” that the legwork over the summer recess will pay off with a “fairly comprehensive package” that “not everyone’s going to be happy with.” He predicts the lame duck Congress will have a compromise to vote on before the end of the year. 

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