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House begins arguments over California drought bill

House Speaker John Boehner joined a trio of California GOP members in the Central Valley last month to support the GOP's drought bill.
House Speaker John Boehner joined a trio of California GOP members in the Central Valley last month to support the GOP's drought bill.
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California's entire Republican House delegation is backing a bill members say will help ease the effects of the state's drought. 

The official debate began Tuesday in a Rules Committee meeting, one day before the House of Representatives considers the water measure.  The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act would set aside environmental regulations and shake up historic water rights agreements.

The catchiest sound bites were over environmental questions, whether to put “the needs of a 3-inch fish” above those of people — specifically those who’d like to use the water to irrigate farms in the Central Valley.

There were even snarky challenges from Central Valley Congressman Devin Nunes, who said if L.A. and San Francisco care so much about those fish, they should give up their water supply.

But the larger issue was decades-old water agreements. Lake Tahoe Republican Congressman Tom McClintock cited the 1994 Bay Delta accord that settled years of water wars in California. "When the agreement was signed," he said, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt "assured all parties that a deal is a deal.”  

Fifteen years later, the Obama administration cited the Endangered Species Act and allowed water to be reallocated for fish habitats. "The water diversions for the delta smelt shattered that promise," McClintock said. "This bill simply redeems it."

California's long and tangled water wars seemed to confuse many members of the House Rules Committee. Fairfield Democrat John Garamendi, who once served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department, began a long lecture about how water rights are bestowed. He told committee members about a water agreement from half a century ago that left Fresno's then-fledgling Westlands Water District at the end of the line for access.

"Ever since that contract was put in place," Garamendi said, "this water district – the largest in the nation – has tried to get a higher priority." He said H.R. 3964 would do that "to the detriment to every other water user in California."

There was little either party agreed on. Republicans said the bill would prevent water from being flushed to the sea. Democrats said those water flows are necessary to keep salt water from the ocean out of inland bodies. Democrats said the bill wouldn’t provide a drop of water; Republicans disagreed, saying there’s 300 billion gallons at play.

Those arguments are likely to play out for hours on the House floor Wednesday when the bill is debated. At least one Democrat — Fresno Congressman Jim Costa — says he'll vote for the measure.

A nearly identical bill passed the House last year and died in the Senate. The same fate is expected for this bill.