Work on California water bill exposes D.C. divide
Bee Washington Bureau-
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 | 01:19 PM
WASHINGTON -- WASHINGTON -- Controlling California water can seem like a covert affair on Capitol Hill. If you're not in the club, you're left in the dark.
Republican lawmakers led by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, have been quietly overseeing the rewrite of a huge California water bill since last summer. The bill could shape everything from the San Joaquin River to Sacramento Valley water deliveries.
But despite the broad-based impact, Democrats feel shut out.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said his staffers have been "blown off" by GOP offices. Garamendi confronted McClintock at a recent committee hearing.
"He said, when the bill is ready, he'll let us know," Garamendi said. "I think it's a very bad way to do legislation, especially legislation that's so sensitive."
McClintock declined repeated requests to discuss the bill over the course of a week. His communications director, Jennifer Cressy, wrote in an email Thursday that "when proponents have a draft ready to propose, the bill will be ready for public discussion."
The original bill introduced last May covers a lot of turf. It stops a San Joaquin River restorationprogram, restores longer irrigation contracts and limits environmental protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Skeptics fear the bill as originally written could also steer more water south of the Delta, away from Sacramento Valley users north of the Delta. Those fears have since been addressed with new language.
The bill's chief author, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said Thursday the bill is now "in good shape" and needs only scheduling with the committee.
"We're trying to fix 30 years of malfeasance by the left," Nunes said, "and it takes a lot of time to get it right."
Nunes further denounced as exaggerated Democratic claims of being shut out, saying that "they've all been involved in trying to destroy the bill," and he dismissed as overly simplistic the idea that the bill pits the Sacramento Valley against the San Joaquin Valley.
Still, Sacramento Valley water users have feared both an immediate loss of water as well as a long-term precedent of federal intrusion on their state water rights.
"When the bill came out, we were concerned that there might be unintended consequences," said Einar Maisch, director of strategic affairs with the Placer County Water Agency. "We've been working with them, to make sure we weren't an unintended victim."
Maisch said the Placer district is now satisfied. Other water users, from the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority in the north to the Westlands Water District and Kern County Water Agency in the south, have been negotiating their own issues.
McClintock is not a co-sponsor of the bill, but as chairman of the 12-member House water and power subcommittee, he will manage its fate. Though first elected to public office in 1982, McClintock has never before been in the majority or held a chairman's gavel.
One centrist Democrat, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, reached out to McClintock at the start of his subcommittee chairmanship. Costa said he recommended certain books, such as the classic "Cadillac Desert," and he urged McClintock to respect congressional Democrats.
"At the end of the day, you have to decide if you want to do something of substance, that will be enacted into law, or do you just want to do politics," Costa said.
Costa said there has since "been no follow-up" from McClintock; he described their conversations as "casual" and "yada, yada, yada."
Nunes, though, insisted Costa has been fully apprised of the legislation.
Even after the bill passes through the Republican-controlled House, it will face hurdles in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Neither Sen. Barbara Boxer nor Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a particularly powerful gatekeeper on California water, have been meaningfully consulted.
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