Deal-making starts for state's water

Sun-Star Washington BureauApril 27, 2012 

WASHINGTON -- The House and Senate 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 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 would curtail an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plan, lengthen irrigation contracts and override certain state and federal environmental provisions.

Negotiators must work out the plans' differences.

"We'll try to see what the art of the possible is," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Thursday.

Costa, who backs the House proposal, called Feinstein's Senate efforts "helpful" adding that he would "like to see more certainty" in increased water deliveries south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The chief sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, was 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 "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 encourages the federal Bureau of Reclamation to work with water districts pursuing water storage projects, including quickly completing reviews. Although the language is written broadly, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Antioch, 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, other California lawmakers cautioned that no bill should endanger environmental protections. Garamendi said he had talked with Feinstein about the water language, and Rep. George Miller, D-Concord, 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 OK."

Sun-Star Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006.

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