Representatives from the Central Valley pushed legislation through a House committee Thursday that would upend the state's system of water rights, deploying the federal government to extract water from Northern California farms, fisheries and cities to send to farmers in the valley.
The action by the House Natural Resources Committee came the same day that the House voted to require the federal government to usurp California's governance of its coastline by requiring offshore leasing for oil and gas drilling.
Neither bill is expected to become law, given strong opposition from California's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
But the water bill, HR1837, is a major salvo by Central Valley lawmakers, most of them Republicans but including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Hanford (Kings County), in a pitched, emotional battle over who gets water in a state whose antiquated water system is straining under the demands of a burgeoning population, a declining ecosystem and the nation's most productive farm sector.
Among other things, the legislation would halt restoration of the San Joaquin River, leaving as much as 40 miles of the river dry, restore irrigation contracts and override fish and wildlife protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
"Plain and simple, it's a water raid on the delta," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove (Sacramento County), who waged trench warfare in the committee by offering more than 20 amendments. All were defeated, but Garamendi said he was "laying down a track of information that will be useful later."
Water held in trust
Garamendi said the valley lawmakers are attempting to "obliterate all the environmental laws of the state and federal governments and simultaneously override the California Constitution," whose public trust doctrine holds that all the waters of California are held in trust by the government for the people of California.
Feinstein and Boxer wrote a letter to the committee chairman stating their strong opposition, saying the bill would waive endangered species protections and attempt to provide more water to the valley "without accounting for where the water will come from or what the impacts will be."
Sponsored by Republican Reps. Devin Nunes of Tulare County, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Jeff Denham of Merced, with support from Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove (Sacramento County) and Democrat Costa, the legislation cleared the House committee on a 27-17 vote.
Republicans said the legislation would "end California's man-made droughts, bring jobs and water supply certainty to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and decrease reliance on foreign food sources."
Costa said that with the world population headed to 9 billion, "the production of food and fiber is a security issue not only for us but for the world."
Stands no chance
But he conceded that the bill will never be enacted, saying Feinstein's participation was not sought, even though he said she has been "a champion trying to fight for water in our valley," often to the consternation of Bay Area Democrats. Costa said the bill "will never bring a single drop of water to our valley."
Cynthia Koehler, legislative director for California water for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the bill was the boldest attempt to pre-empt state water law she has ever seen.
"There is a fairly significant question about whether it is constitutional," she said. "Congress could say to every state, 'You cannot touch any water rights to preserve fish and wildlife for any purpose at all.' "
House members from the valley blamed their area's high unemployment on water shortages. Denham challenged Democrats to "come to Mendota and see the 40 percent unemployment rate."
But the Pacific Institute in Oakland concluded in a recent study on the effect of the recent state drought that chronic unemployment in the Central Valley was mainly the result of the housing downturn.
A matter of rights
McClintock negotiated an agreement from fellow Republicans to preserve local water rights to protect his Sacramento district from the original bill, which put those rights in question. He argued that the legislation does not trounce states' rights.
Instead, he said it upholds individual rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which makes it a duty of Congress "to protect the property rights, including water rights, of every citizen against encroachment" by the state, including water he claims was expropriated to protect fisheries and "cavalierly dumped into the Pacific Ocean."
Garamendi said the bill fails to develop any new water sources and simply moves water around, violating "160 years of history, regulations and water rights. The measure "adds to the conflict without resolving the underlying problem."
Costa defended amendments to grant 900 more acre feet of delta water to Kettleman City, a tiny, isolated farming town in Kings County, and raise Shasta Dam by 15 feet. Republicans warned that the Shasta amendment was an earmark and would "poison" the overall bill, so Costa withdrew it. The Kettleman City earmark stayed.