Politics

Secret California water deal left high and dry in D.C.

Workers drill for water for a farmer near Bakersfield. California is experiencing its driest year on record, dating back 119 years and possible the worst in the past 500 years.
Workers drill for water for a farmer near Bakersfield. California is experiencing its driest year on record, dating back 119 years and possible the worst in the past 500 years.
David McNew/Getty Images

A Congressional back room water deal has sprung a leak.

After months of secret negotiations and without a single public hearing, a bill that would have built dams and reservoirs in California - and rolled back environmental laws - has been shelved. At least for now.

California's record drought prompted both the House and Senate to pass their own version of water bills. The House version - cosponsored by the entire CA GOP delegation - would roll back environmental protections and rewrite water contracts.

Dianne Feinstein's Senate version, co-sponsored by California colleague Barbara Boxer, was a more middle-of-the-road measure -- with some protections for the Sacramento River delta -- but  opened the door to negotiations with the House.

The battle attracted big money from the nation’s largest agricultural interests. Westlands Water District spent $600,000 on four different lobbying firms last year. The Fresno Bee reported that the head of Westlands, Tom Birmingham, was in Washington this week.

Environmentalists and Northern California Democrats have been up in arms about being locked out of the deal making. The Los Angeles Times slammed Feinstein for the secrecy in an editorial Thursday.

After months of phone calls, meetings, hundreds of pages of drafts, it appeared that a deal was imminent, likely a measure that would be tacked onto a “must pass” spending bill. Late today, talks collapsed.

Feinstein says although progress was made, it became clear "that we will be unable to present an agreed-upon proposal before Congress."

Senator Boxer says she’s glad that Senator Feinstein is “taking the time to get more feedback.”

Boxer has been under pressure as head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, to protect fisheries and watershed. Earlier in the week, more than half a dozen House Democrats from Northern California wrote to Boxer, reminding her of her promise to “oppose any drought bill that would undermine state or federal environmental laws.” 

They also pressed their case that they deserved a “seat at the table.” Boxer agreed that “all stakeholders” should be heard. “We want to make sure that anything that is put forward is equitable to all users.”

Today, Boxer sat down with Northern California Democrats George Miller, Jared Huffman, and Mike Thompson. Those lawmakers – plus Jerry McNerney, John Garamendi, Doris Matsui, and Ami Bera – applauded the demise of the backroom deal, saying it “would have eviscerated environmental laws.”

Senator Feinstein says all sides must come together to find ways to provide water, adding, "this isn't about corporate agriculture, this is about California."

So the battle isn’t over. GOP Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare, whose earlier water legislation became the blueprint for the House bill, says, “these things happen during negotiations” and there may be “new options for an agreement” before the end of the year.

And if not, in January, when Republicans have control of both the House and the Senate, drought legislation is likely to be more quickly flushed through Congress.