House passes California drought relief bill

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2014 - The House of Representatives today passed a bill that its Republican backers say would bring some relief to drought-plagued California while Democratic opponents say it would weaken environmental laws and possibly ignite a water war between the northern and southern parts of the state.

The bill, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act (H.R. 5781), passed on a 230-182 mostly party line vote. It would allow the state to increase the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento River Delta system south to the agriculturally rich Central Valley. It was introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., who emphasizes the bill would be in effect for just two water years (18 month) and that it “contains no controversial measures for either party.”

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The bill's fate in the Senate, where Democrats remain in control in the few days left in the current lame-duck session, is uncertain. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has come out strongly against the bill, and the White House last week said that President Obama's top advisers would recommend a veto if Congress approves the measure.

Boxer said she had carefully studied the bill. “I am dismayed that this measure could reignite the water wars by overriding critical state and federal protections for California,” Boxer said. “The GOP's proposal would dictate specific pumping levels -- regardless of the opinions of scientists - which could jeopardize our state's salmon fishing industry. We have communities across the state that are hurting from this drought, so we need a balanced approach that doesn't pit one stakeholder against another, and meets the needs of all of California's water users.”

California's senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, also came out against the bill today, citing provisions that she said would waive environmental protections.

“I believe that we're making progress toward a bipartisan bill. It's my hope that we'll reach agreement on legislation that can pass both the House and the Senate and enact a bill that moves water to Californians suffering from the drought and helps all of the state while not waiving environmental protections," Feinstein said.

 In a Statement of Administration Policy, the White House said the legislation "makes operational determinations regarding the use of limited water resources during the ongoing drought, and contains many new provisions that could lead to unintended consequences or further litigation... In particular, the bill appears to include a number of potentially conflicting mandates which can create confusion and undermine environmental laws, making it ripe for future litigation.”

Californian Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, and another sponsor of the legislation, said immediate action is necessary to provide relief in a state suffering under what new research shows could be the worst drought in the region in more than a millennium.

“We have reached this point after years of inaction by Senate Democrats while ill-conceived policies have continued to prioritize the well-being of fish above people,” McCarthy said. The lawmaker cited a study of tree-growth rings released this week that indicates the current drought is the worst in at least 1,200 years. Researchers compared tree rings with known moisture amounts to reach their conclusion, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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