Politics

Drought: 5 things to know about legislation stuck in Congress

Cannon Michael's farm grows tomatoes, melons and onions, among other crops. This year, however, Michael will have to fallow one-fifth of the land due to the drought
Cannon Michael's farm grows tomatoes, melons and onions, among other crops. This year, however, Michael will have to fallow one-fifth of the land due to the drought
Thomas Dreisbach/NPR

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Congress returns to Washington tonight after more than a month’s recess. Californians are thirstily awaiting word on another topic: what does Congress intend to do about the drought?

Here's answers to five questions about Washington's response to the drought:

  1. Where do we stand on drought legislation?

The House passed a measure back in February that would create more storage for water. That bill, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, was co-sponsored by every GOP member of the House from California, plus Fresno Democrat Jim Costa.

Environmentalists and northern California Democrats are up in arms because it would set aside environmental laws and throw out water contracts that have been in existence for decades.

The Senate measure was sponsored by both of the state’s Democratic Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. It never had a hearing and passed in May by unanimous consent – a procedure that sets aside the usual rules of the Senate and just lets a measure come directly to the floor for an up or down decision. That bill dealt with temporary measures and is seen by House Republicans as a placeholder to open the discussion about a compromise measure.

2. Did negotiations stop when Congress left town?

Not really. Staffers have reportedly been sending drafts of various compromise legislation back and forth and there have been conference calls. The hope was to have something pretty solid for members to vote on when they get back to town.

3. How’s it looking?

Not great. For two reasons: politics and environmental law.

On the political side, there’s three factors:

               A) No one wants to pass a controversial measure before an election

               B) The cost of building dams makes a number of conservative House and Senate Republicans nervous. Because of the limited number of days to work on legislation, any Senate measure may have to once again pass by unanimous consent – and it’s far from certain that a big money measure would get every Senate GOP vote.

                C) This is mostly a California issue. And neither California Senator is up for re-election.  Democrats are in danger of losing the Senate majority this election, so why would a senator from another state vote on a controversial measure that doesn’t matter to folks back home?

On the environmental side, remember, one of our senators, Barbara Boxer, heads the Environment & Public Works Committee, and is an bulldog on environmental issues. Even Feinstein’s basic measure was criticized by environmental groups as opening the door to trouble.

It’s now looking like the Senate is punting to the Obama administration, awaiting input from the Environmental Protection Agency about whether some of the provisions House Republicans want included in a compromise measure would violate either the Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act. And as of Friday afternoon, the White House has been silent.

4. What’s the sticking point?

Storage. Lawmakers representing farming districts want dams and the ability to store runoff. Lawmakers representing fishing districts worry that diverting water will starve rivers of the water needed to sustain fish populations – and not just the endangered smelt and other species in the rivers and the 1,100 square mile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Northern California salmon fishermen are concerned they’ll be put out of business. Remember, salmon are both river and ocean creatures. They spawn in streams and get fat in the ocean.

5. Suppose they do come to an agreement. Does that mean California’s water woes are over?

Nope. All of these legislative solutions deal with available water. Unless it rains – and snows in the Sierras – the fight is over the limited amount that’s available now.