California drought hearing produces partisan sniping

WASHINGTON -- The California drought drew partisan finger-pointing but also helping hands at a congressional hearing convened Tuesday to figure out what could happen next.

One San Joaquin Valley Republican blamed water shortages on "radical environmentalists and their Democratic patrons." One top Democrat, in turn, cast Republicans as hypocrites for seeking federal funds from an economic stimulus bill they opposed.

For a time, the only common ground appeared to be the seriousness of California's third consecutive year of drought.

"It's the (Hurricane) Katrina of California," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, told the House Natural Resources Committee.

San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County is at only 49 percent of capacity. Shasta Reservoir, the largest federal reservoir in Northern California, is at 61 percent of capacity. Farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been told to expect no federal irrigation water this year.

Although California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already has declared a state of emergency, the House committee met Tuesday to consider potential federal actions. The several-hour hearing combined theater with potentially useful political pressure.

Under questioning, the Obama administration's top irrigation official agreed it's possible some economic stimulus funds may be used for drought relief in California. One billion dollars in Bureau of Reclamation funds provided under an economic stimulus plan will be distributed by the end of April, acting Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Bill McDonald said.

"The conditions occurring in California require decisive, forceful actions by government," McDonald agreed.

Republicans and Democrats alike urged McDonald to fund the so-called "Two Gates Project," a $26.5 million plan to install two temporary gates in the central Delta that would reduce the loss of fish and thereby minimize water export restrictions. McDonald did not commit his agency one way or another on any particular project.

Separately, the Bureau of Reclamation is offering money for temporary pumps, emergency wells and other drought-alleviating measures.

A federal Drought Action Team, first announced a month ago by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, was to have its first formal meeting Tuesday afternoon, McDonald told the House panel.

"Things have moved forward, although the team hasn't met as such," McDonald said.

Even so, the prospect that an estimated 40,000 Californians may lose their jobs because of the drought evoked strong emotions Tuesday. Several Valley lawmakers emphasized what they repeatedly called "the human face" of the drought. Though they weren't allowed to summon the witnesses they wanted, they showed pictures of long food lines in Firebaugh and Mendota.

"These people aren't working, because there's no water," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

The photographs were accompanied by other props and vivid rhetoric. Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, echoed other conservatives Tuesday in asserting that "we are putting fish above people," while Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, vehemently denounced the "radical environmentalists" and declared that "under Democratic control Congress ushered in" laws including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

The former two laws were signed by President Richard Nixon and the CVPIA was signed by President George H.W. Bush, both of them Republicans. The judicial opinion that protects Delta fish and that's most upset farmers was written by Fresno-based U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, a Republican appointee.

"The judge had no choice, because the system has been run right down to the margins," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.

House Republicans presented the committee's leadership with a fishbowl containing an East Coast rainbow smelt, a distant relative to the Delta smelt on whose behalf farmers have been losing water. It wasn't entirely clear what was going to happen to the fish after the hearing ended.