WASHINGTON (AP) — The House on Thursday passed GOP-led legislation designed to bring more water to California's farm belt amid a severe and lengthy drought.
Similar efforts have faltered in the last two congressional sessions after initially passing the House, and the White House and Democrats remain opposed.
The four-year California drought has forced communities to cut water use. Some rural areas have been particularly hurt as the state's water distribution systems curtailed the amount of water for agriculture.
The bill is designed to take more water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta before it flows into the ocean and divert it to other uses.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 245-176. Opponents said that moving more water to farms will harm other California communities and the state's salmon fishing industry. Only five Democrats voted for the bill.
Republicans have blamed some of the water cutbacks on environmental regulations designed to protect salmon populations and the threatened Delta smelt, a three-inch-long fish that is disappearing. At times over the years, state and federal officials have reduced the amount of water pumped from the Delta to prevent smelt from getting sucked into the pumps, and to help salmon and enhance water quality.
The bill authored by California Republican Rep. David Valadao required that federal regulators maintain certain pumping levels unless the secretary of the Interior Department certifies that level would harm the long-term survival of the Delta smelt and no other alternatives to protect the smelt are available. The 170-page bill also sets deadlines for the completion of feasibility studies to build or enlarge five dams in the state and ends efforts to build up salmon populations in the San Joaquin River.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, another California Republican, said that people would lose their livelihoods if lawmakers didn't act.
"We designed the bill to move as much water down south to our farms and to our cities as possible without making any fundamental changes to the environmental law," McCarthy said.
Democrats said that the GOP proposal would upset the balance of the delta, harming both the environment and the quality of the drinking water.
"If that fresh water doesn't run through and run out to the ocean, the salt water runs back in. I have two major cities in my district that rely on that for a source of water," said Democratic Rep Mike Thompson. "If this bill were to pass, their water supply is in jeopardy. You can't drink salt water. It just doesn't work."
At times during the debate it seemed as though half of the state's 53-member House delegation was gathered near the podium, waiting to get a chance to speak about the bill. The drought is a potent political issue in the state's Central Valley. Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, who narrowly escaped defeat in the last election, was the lone Democrat from California to vote for the bill. The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly blasted a handful of Democratic lawmakers in swing districts for voting against the bill.
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock portrayed the state's water shortage as a man-made problem, in part created by a failure to keep up with storage needs.
"Even before the drought, leftist policies created severe water shortages in California's Central Valley, devastating the economy and creating the spectacle of food lines in one of the most fertile agricultural regions of our nation," McClintock said.
Democratic lawmakers countered that the GOP was looking out for one constituency rather than the entire state.
"Moving more water South doesn't answer our problems and hurts Delta farmers and the salmon industry," said Rep. Jerry McNerney. "We can't pick and choose our economies. We have to fight for them all."
The White House said it strongly opposes the bill and argued that dictating operational decisions for the state's water distribution systems could limit water supplies. Other provisions would likely result in the resumption of costly litigation.
Key now is what happens in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein would have a major say in shaping what can pass that chamber. She said Republicans have it right in some areas, namely the need to increase the flexibility of the state's water delivery infrastructure. She also said legislation needs to include more water recycling and desalination projects, and help the entire West.
"There are already 15 ocean desalination projects and 65 water recycling projects being considered throughout California. These types of projects, as well as building or increasing reservoir capacity, must be a part of any long-term solution," Feinstein said.