WASHINGTON, July 15, 2015 - President Barack Obama indicated Tuesday he would veto the House Republicans’ legislative answer to the four-year drought crippling California’s Central Valley. The veto threat came just as the House Rules Committee debated the merits of the Western Water and American Food Security Act (HR 2898) with lawmaker witnesses.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., told the committee that the bill introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., was “long overdue” and blamed Democrats for not passing a similar piece of legislation in previous years prior when similar legislation was up for consideration.
“Droughts are nature’s fault, (but) water shortages are our fault,” McClintock said. “If enacted now, (the bill) may avert suffering that would otherwise be caused by the next (shortage).”
Just last year, California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley lost 20,000 farm-labor jobs due to cutbacks in water deliveries, McClintock said. This bill would streamline the process for building new reservoirs and get water to where it’s needed most: water-strapped communities, he argued.
“We have plenty of water, the problem is that it’s unevenly distributed over time and distance… that’s why we build dams and aqueducts,” McClintock said.
Another California congressman, Democrat Jared Huffman, said the legislation “simply redistributes water, primarily to the benefit of large industrial farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley.” Huffman called the bill a “repackaging” of old, failed legislation full of “divisive ideas that pit our state’s water users against each other” and “reignite water wars.”
“This bill was crafted behind closed doors,” he continued, and “has received virtually no public review or scrutiny… and it’s pretty clear why.”
The Department of Interior (DOI) which houses the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – the agencies that would be charged with implementing the bill’s provisions -- wrote a letter in opposition last week
The legislation would likely “limit water supplies by creating new and confusing conflicts with existing laws,” DOI Deputy Secretary Michael Connor wrote to Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Connor claimed it would also “slow decision-making, generate significant litigation, and limit the real-time operational flexibility that is so critical to maximizing water delivery… (and) could be detrimental to listed species,” such as the Delta smelt or the Chinook salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Numerous fisheries, wildlife and sportsmen’s advocacy groups have also voiced their opposition through letters, accusing the bill of cutting the fishing community out of California’s water management and rolling back protections for economically important fish species to benefit industrial operations.
Other opponents say the bill preempts California law by prioritizing certain water rights holders and repealing the state’s San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act. Among them are the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, which both printed editorials in opposition to HR 2898.
The White House veto message cited several concerns – ranging from Endangered Species Act violations to costly litigation – and asserted that the bill would preempt state law and needlessly undermine the economic viability of commercial and tribal fisheries along the West Coast.
House and Senate Democrats are fighting back with their own drought bills, some already introduced and others forthcoming. Huffman’s Drought Recovery and Resilience Act (HR 2983) posted last week, would set up new drought recovery strategies and provide supplemental appropriations for the EPA and the Bureau of Reclamation for drought relief efforts. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a vocal opponent of the House bill, is expected to pose drought legislation soon and fellow California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer has legislation – Water in the 21st Century (S 176) – pending.
In a press conference Tuesday morning, Valadao said he was confident his bill would pass the House this week and that there was support for companion legislation in the Senate. Robert Dillon, communications director for the Senate Energy Committee, told Agri-Pulse that Senate Republicans were waiting to see what the House passes and what Feinstein introduces before drafting their own edition.
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