Deal-cutting time comes for California water

The House and Senate now are on another collision course over California water, with the serious deal-making about to begin.

A $33.3 billion energy and water funding bill approved Thursday by the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee sets out one bargaining position, a relatively modest one. The bill shepherded by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein promotes water transfers, encourages planning to boost Central Valley irrigation water deliveries and speeds review of certain water storage proposals -- in particular, Sites Reservoir in western Colusa County.

“Overall, I believe we have developed a well-balanced and responsible bill,” Feinstein said Thursday.

A far more aggressive House bill passed earlier this year sets out a competing position. The House bill would curtail an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plan, lengthen irrigation contracts and override certain state and federal environmental provisions.

Negotiators must now work out their differences.

“We’ll try to see what the art of the possible is,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Calif., said Thursday.

Costa, a backer of the more aggressive House proposal, called Feinstein’s Senate efforts “helpful” while adding that he would “like to see more certainty” in increased water deliveries south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The chief author of the House bill, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Calif., was even more emphatic about the need to ensure greater water deliveries though he did not dismiss Feinstein’s provisions out of hand.

“We’ll read the language and be willing to work with her,” Nunes said Thursday. “The appropriations process is the easiest place to do minor fixes, but it’s not going to solve the fundamental problem. This fix needs to be comprehensive.”

The Senate bill calls for a six-month Interior Department study on ways to “facilitate additional water supply deliveries” to Central Valley Project contractors. The bill also “urges” the Interior Department to “facilitate and expedite” transfers of CVP water. Environmental advocate Patricia Schifferle complained Thursday that this would allow “taxpayer-subsidized water” to be shipped out of the region.

The Senate bill also encourages the federal Bureau of Reclamation to work closely with water districts pursuing water storage projects, including completing reviews “on an expeditious basis.” Although the language is written broadly, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, Calif., and others said the immediate beneficiary would be the proposed Sites Reservoir.

“I like that it’s in the bill,” Garamendi said

Underscoring the delicate balancing act ahead, still other California lawmakers cautioned that no bill should endanger environmental protections. Garamendi said he had already engaged in extensive conversations with Feinstein about the water language, while Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, Calif., made clear his concerns about more water being diverted toward farms.

“It’s minimally harmful,” Miller said of Feinstein’s efforts. “I think what she came out with is basically okay.”

Important differences distinguish the House and Senate bills, besides their specific California water disagreements.

The Senate’s committee-approved bill is a must-pass appropriations measure, necessary to keep the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation operating in Fiscal 2013. The House bill is discretionary. Although Nunes noted that his House bill has been placed before the Senate, potentially for consideration at any time, it is the energy and water appropriations bill that is almost certain to be the legislative vehicle of choice for California water language.

“The negotiations will take place in an appropriations context,” Garamendi said.

This matters, in part, because lawmakers are sometimes limited in what they can accomplish on an appropriations bill.

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