(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tuesday 4:45 p.m. Update: The House Rules Committee voted to send Republican-sponsored water legislation to the floor for action Wednesday. The panel voted 9-3 vote to approve full House consideration of the bill, HR3964, sponsored by the state’s GOP delegation and advertised as emergency drought relief for farm communities in the San Joaquin Valley. The 68-page measure would roll back a wide range of environmental protections for endangered species, kill the decades-long effort to restore flows, and salmon, to the San Joaquin River and pre-empt state water and endangered species laws. Those measures are all designed to allow more water to be sent from federal pumps in the Delta to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Critics of the bill, including Gov. Jerry Brown and John Laird, head of the state’s Resources Agency, say it’s an overly broad measure that would disrupt California’s efforts to deal with its short- and long-term water issues while failing to deliver supplies to drought-afflicted communities.

The Rules panel’s two-hour hearing Tuesday featured sharp disagreements between California Democrats and one of the bill’s Republican architects, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, over the pre-emption issue.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, warned that HR 3964 threatens to overturn a bipartisan package of water laws that the state Legislature passed in 2009. He offered an amendment to try to protect those 2009 measures, which included new rules for groundwater pumping and a new state commission to investigate water supply and environmental issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Let’s at least make sure that we’re not pre-empting, through the sweeping pre-emption language in this bill, the best thing to happen in California water in half a century,” Huffman said.

Nunes called the pre-emption issue “total nonsense,” describing it as “a false red herring put up by the left because they know what they’ve done to our region is wrong.”

Rep. John Garamendi, an East Bay Democrat, offered an amendment to the GOP bill that would remove what he termed its most “contentious” provisions and instead call for pursuing aggressive conservation, recycling and new water storage programs. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, offered an amendment that would set up a bipartisan congressional task force to address California’s water supply issues.

It’s unlikely that any of the Democratic amendments will survive in the heavily Republican House. It’s equally doubtful that the Democrat-controlled Senate will pass or even act on the bill, which is opposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Original post: Gov. Jerry Brown has come out against an emergency water bill introduced by California’s House Republicans, saying the legislation would do little to provide drought relief and instead would reopen divisions among all those with an interest in how the state’s water supply is divvied up.

Emergency drought legislation was touted earlier this month as a temporary measure to get more water to Central Valley farmers.

But what has emerged now is HR3964. It’s a sweeping and apparently permanent measure that, in its 68 pages, would: a) roll back a wide range of environmental protections for endangered species; b) kill the decades-long effort to restore flows, and salmon runs, to the San Joaquin River, and; c) pre-empt state water and endangered species laws. Those measures are all designed to allow more water to be sent from federal pumps in the Delta to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

In his letter, Brown denounced the bill, calling it:

… an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis. It would override state laws and protections, and mandate that certain water interests come out ahead of others. It falsely suggest the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies. H.R. 396 would interfere with our ability to respond effectively and flexibly to the current emergency, and would re-open old water wounds undermining years of progress toward reaching a collaborative long-term solution to our water needs.

The bill, which has been titled “The Sacramento-San Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act,” is scheduled for consideration by the full House on Wednesday.

McCarthy: No More ‘Fish Before Families’

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield who is House majority whip, defended the bill and issued his own blast after Brown’s statement:

“This bill ends the madness of putting fish before families and creates a solution to ensure consistent water deliveries for our communities when Mother Nature blesses us with precipitation,” McCarthy said in an emailed statement to the Associated Press Monday. “Any other proposed idea to ameliorate the effects of today’s drought would not be felt for over a dozen years. Our communities cannot wait.”

The battle over water legislation comes as the state continues to suffer through one of the worst droughts in its history. That was underlined Friday when the California Department of Water Resources announced that State Water Project customers — agencies that serve about 25 million people statewide and irrigate about 750,000 of farmland — will get no water this year.

The current drought, however, is just part of the context for HR3964. One of the bill’s architects, Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia, has made at least two attempts to reverse Delta pumping restrictions imposed during ongoing federal Endangered Species Act litigation to protect salmon, smelt and other species.

His 2009 “Turn on the Pumps Act,” HR3105, posed a logical conundrum. It would have forbidden federal water managers from restricting Delta pumping to protect fish — unless the restricted water flow was more than the maximum amount of water ever pumped out of the Delta. A Democratic majority in the House killed the bill.

In 2011, Nunes introduced HR1837, the apparent template for this year’s GOP water legislation. That bill, proposed at a time when the state wasn’t facing a drought, was titled the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act. It passed the House (which had switched to Republican control), but died in the Senate.

In an appearance on Fox Business to discuss the bill, Nunes called measures imposed to protect Delta species as “eco-terrorism” and denied that his determination to pump more water to the Central Valley would trigger a “water war.”

“They talk about a water war being started?” Nunes said. “No, there hasn’t been a water war. We have been put into their liberal concentration camp, and my constituents in the San Joaquin Valley are not going to take their nonsense anymore.”

Here’s the video of that appearance, which also featured East Bay Rep. John Garamendi:


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

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