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.
"I don't think they have any interest in talking to us," said Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, adding that he has had "no contact" from Republicans writing the water bill.
Equally frustrated at what he described as his staffers being "blown off," Rep John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, directly confronted McClintock at a recent committee hearing.
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"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, stated in an e-mail 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 restoration program, 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 users north of the Delta.
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."
Cressy added in an e-mail that "it's been a long and complicated process." No public action has yet been scheduled.
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. This poses a new challenge for the 56-year-old lawmaker. 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 recommended certain books, like 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.
At the initial June 2, 2011 hearing on the bill, McClintock praised it as "the first step in bringing the policy pendulum back toward a sensible balance between environmental and human needs." He dismissed fears about preempted water rights.
"The Left never complains when the federal government preempts states seeking relief from overly burdensome federal regulations," McClintock declared then.
But Sacramento Valley water users, too, became alarmed, and McClintock subsequently declared in a second hearing, called at the insistence of Democrats, that he would not move legislation that "in any way undermines local area of origin water rights."
The legislative changes quietly written since then address the water rights problem.
The next problem is how to move the bill beyond the Republican-controlled House and through the Democrat-controlled Senate. Neither Sen. Barbara Boxer nor Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a particularly powerful gatekeeper on California water, have been meaningfully consulted.
That's a recipe, some say, for failure. The water bill's proponents, Rep. Mike Thompson said, would have talked across party aisles "if they had any interest in writing a bill that will become law."
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