California's and Oregon's Democratic senators offered a drought relief bill Tuesday that stands in stark contrast to the Republican bill the House approved last week, setting up a tough battle when lawmakers eventually try to merge the two.
The Senate bill would grant $300 million in emergency aid and require federal agencies to do all they can to boost water supplies, while the GOP bill had focused more on lifting environmental restrictions to allow more water to be pumped from the Delta south to San Joaquin Valley farms.
The stakes grow higher as water levels recede. Recent rains made no significant dent in California's huge water deficit, leaving the state still looking at its worst drought in more than half a century. The Golden State's $45 billion agricultural sector is at risk of devastation, some smaller water districts might run dry in the next few months, and delicate ecosystems hang in the balance.
President Barack Obama will speak about drought relief Friday in Fresno, most likely with this new bill as rhetorical fodder. Obama, like California leaders and House Democrats, had blasted the House GOP bill as a water grab for agriculture at the environment's expense and a political power play that would undermine years of difficult negotiations. Agricultural and environmental groups alike praised the senators' bill Tuesday, if only as a first step.
"This bill provides operational flexibility to increase water supplies and primes federal agencies to make the best use of any additional rain," U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a news release. "With so little water available, we must focus on streamlining federal programs and provide what assistance we can to those farmers and communities being hit the hardest."
But House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, issued a statement saying the Senate bill "disappointingly focuses mainly on treating the symptoms of fallowed fields and dry spigots instead of taking steps toward curing the root of the problem so that our communities can receive more water.
"The problem that must be solved is our communities' ability to capture and store the water that they have contracted and paid for," McCarthy said. "Californians are interested in a serious conversation to end the madness of our man-made water crisis."
In a joint statement, six Northern California House Democrats said the Senate measure was a huge improvement but still threatened the north state environment, economy and protections for endangered fish.
The Senate bill includes $100 million in emergency funds for Interior Department projects to rapidly increase water supplies and $100 million in emergency aid for farmers to fund water conservation measures protecting lands and sensitive watersheds.
There's also $25 million for conservation projects and to protect and upgrade water systems; $25 million for community anti-drought projects; $25 million for public and nonprofit institutions to aid low-income migrant and seasonal farmworkers directly harmed by the drought; and $25 million for private forest landowners to carry out conservation measures.
Spending aside, the bill would require the Interior and Commerce departments to work with California to maximize water supplies by keeping a key Delta facility open as long as possible without harming salmon fisheries; allowing as much Delta pumping as possible without harming the Delta smelt; and letting water districts sell or trade surplus supply to drier districts through the Delta.
It also would amend federal law to give more individual emergency aid for major droughts when the president declares an emergency; require a federal ruling within 10 days of a state's request on projects and operations that can provide additional water supply; and more.
The Democrats' bill will require agencies to help relieve communities "hardest hit by this unprecedented drought and make investments to move and conserve water to help our entire state," said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "The goal of this bill is to bring us together to address this crisis, rather than divide us."
That was a dig at the House Republican bill, which critics said benefits agriculture at the expense of the environment and ordinary Californians.
Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif said the Senate should take up and pass the bill as soon as possible "so it can move quickly to a conference with the House bill passed last week."
"If reasonable accommodation can be made between the two and merged into a single bill in a bipartisan effort, benefits can be realized by all California water users," Nassif said.
Environmentalists want to see as little of the House bill as possible included in the final legislation. One key environmental attorney praised the senators' recognition that "it is lack of rain, and not environmental protections, that is the cause of the current situation."
Complying with existing state and federal law is the right approach, said Kate Poole, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, but her group wants to make sure "there are no unintended consequences that might unfairly shift the burdens of the drought onto one set of water users at the expense of another."
Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, which had lambasted the House GOP bill as undermining the state's right to address its water needs and years of bipartisan collaboration, also praised the senators' bill Tuesday. California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said it offers "common sense solutions to our drought crisis that don't pit Californians against each other."
"It's clear that the senators respect our state laws and regulations, and this bill reinforces actions the state is taking with our federal partners," he said.
About the Senate Democrats' water bill
"This bill provides operational flexibility to increase water supplies and primes federal agencies to make the best use of any additional rain. With so little water available, we must focus on streamlining federal programs and provide what assistance we can to those farmers and communities being hit the hardest."
-- U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"Unfortunately, this proposal disappointingly focuses mainly on treating the symptoms of fallowed fields and dry spigots instead of taking steps toward curing the root of the problem so that our communities can receive more water. The problem that must be solved is our communities' ability to capture and store the water that they have contracted and paid for. ... Californians are interested in a serious conversation to end the madness of our man-made water crisis"
-- House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield
"Our bill will require all agencies to use their existing authority to help provide relief to communities hardest hit by this unprecedented drought and make investments to move and conserve water to help our entire state. The goal of this bill is to bring us together to address this crisis, rather than divide us."
-- U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
"California, especially the San Joaquin Valley has been suffering from drought conditions severely exacerbated by erroneous federal regulations for several years. "
-- Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, author of last week's House bill