A tug boat pushes a barge down the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Rio Vista, Sept. 23, 2013. Along with providing a source for commercial transportation and pleasure craft, the delta also provides much of the water for central and southern California cities and irrigation water for San Joaquin Valley farmers.
The House approved on Tuesday a bill designed to give state and federal agencies authority to move more water in coming months to California's drought-stricken farm belt.
GOP lawmakers used their majority to pass the bill by a 230-182 vote. Six Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans in supporting the legislation. However, the Senate is not expected to take up the measure before adjourning for the year, meaning lawmakers will likely have to start over on the issue next year.
Opponents called the bill a water-grab designed to help farmers at the expense of others, particularly the state's salmon industry. White House advisers had recommended to President Barack Obama that he veto the bill if it reached his desk.
The state is suffering from its third year of drought, and GOP lawmakers in the House have complained that environmental protections designed to protect fish and wildlife have exacerbated the water shortage in the state's San Joaquin Valley. The bill would increase water exports to the region. The House had already passed a drought relief measure in February. This time, GOP lawmakers pursued a bill that's much closer to what Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer helped pass in their chamber, which focused on giving government agencies more authority to move water around for irrigation and other purposes. The GOP abandoned previously-passed language that had called for agencies to move more water to the region without regard to the Environmental Species Act and other protections.
"The people in the Central Valley are living through a disaster, and this measure provides the temporary relief they need," said House Speaker John Boehner after the vote. "This relief doesn't just help Californians. It helps every business and every household that counts on California agriculture."
With Boxer and Feinstein opposing the bill, it's not expected to go anywhere after Tuesday's vote. Still, the debate gives the GOP another opportunity to remind the state's San Joaquin Valley which political party has tried to take steps to help them. The water issue did not play well for Democratic lawmakers from the region during the latest election season, although the party's incumbents did manage to win midterm races that turned out to be more competitive than expected.
The debate took on familiar arguments with lawmakers from the Central Valley arguing for sending more water to the region, and opponents from other regions arguing that their constituents would be harmed.
"Everybody in this state is paying a price for this drought, but now, in the eleventh hour of this Congress, this group of farmers, these very powerful, small people ... have decided they are going to do it this way," said Democratic Rep. George Miller in Monday's hourlong debate on the bill.
"This is about San Francisco and Los Angeles getting all of their water and never giving us one drop," countered Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who is from the region.
Democratic congressman Jim Costa sided with Republicans in the vote. He narrowly won re-election with many voters upset about a lack of action in Washington on water issues.
"We have been here before, and we will be here again until Congress acts to provide authority for increased operational flexibility for California's water projects," said Costa, also from the region. "The situation this year has been devastating, and if we do nothing, next year it will become catastrophic."
More than 99 percent of California remains in moderate or worse drought despite recent rains and snow.