WASHINGTON (AP) -- Prospects for a drought relief bill to help California farmers appear as likely as the state being deluged by three straight days of rain.
Key lawmakers and staff are working to resolve differences in two bills that separately passed the House and Senate this year. The lawmakers won't say where progress has occurred or what roadblocks remain, but time is running out for the current congressional session. Congress will be out for the rest of August and for virtually all of October to give lawmakers time to campaign for the midterm elections.
“I'm making no predictions right now. All I'm saying is we're still working and comparing notes,” said Republican Rep. Devin Nunes on the possibilities of reaching a compromise.
California has experienced three consecutive dry years. State officials recently passed emergency regulations that prohibit certain outdoor water uses, and an estimated 64 local water agencies have enacted some form of mandatory water restrictions.
The biggest impact has been on the state's Central Valley. A recent study out of the University of California, Davis, projected that farmers have left about 410,000 acres there unplanted. That's led to the loss of about 17,000 jobs and about $800 million in revenue for the region's farmers.
The lack of progress underscores the vast difference between the two bills, but it's also recognition that whatever the federal government does will have a limited impact on the state's drought conditions. That means there's no imperative to rush into something that could disappoint key constituencies before the November elections, such as farmers for the Republican lawmakers or environmental groups for the Democratic lawmakers, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at California's Claremont McKenna College.
“Whether the House bill passes or the Senate bill passes, our lawns are still going to be brown,” Pitney said.
The House bill that passed in February largely along party lines would roll back laws intended to restore salmon populations and wildlife habitat harmed by the decades-long efforts to store and move water to myriad consumers. Some of the water directed toward those restoration efforts would go to water contractors, who would then distribute it to their farm and municipal customers.
The Senate bill, led by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, leaves the environmental protection laws in place. It pushes federal and state agencies to pump as much water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as the law and regulations allow.
The Obama administration says it already is doing much of what the bills seeks. For example, the bill calls for opening gates designed to bring fresh water into the delta while salmon are not migrating, which would allow additional water to be pumped south. The Bureau of Reclamation already is doing that, “not because it's in the bill, but something we thought we could do to maximize our exports while still complying with the regulations,” said Matt Maucieri, an agency spokesman.
Environmental groups have called the House bill a nonstarter and said Feinstein's bill would exacerbate the drought's effects on the state's fishing industry.
Republicans have tried to link Democratic lawmakers to the water shortage.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio visited the state just before the House passed its drought relief bill and said that current policy amounted to favoring fish over people.
Nunes rejected the notion that failure to reach an agreement would benefit the GOP in competitive Central Valley congressional races this November.
“This is not political. We're in desperate need of water. We've got cities, towns running out of water. But we have to have a bill that produces water. We can't do a bill just for the sake of doing a bill. It has to produce something,” Nunes said.
Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, briefed lawmakers in mid-July. “I was very impressed with the bipartisan levels of deep concern about water in California, and the bipartisan frustration with their inability to act,” Lund said.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said lawmakers need to get something done before next year's planting season.
“We have told both sides to work together, realizing neither is going to get exactly what they want, but California will suffer if they don't get something done,” Wenger said.
Tom Barcellos, a dairy farmer who lives in Tulare County, recently met with some of the state's congressional delegation. He said in an interview that the water supply for the local school is so low that teachers and students are just a few weeks away from having to rely on bottled water and portable toilets. He said he knows Congress can't solve the water shortage, but every little drop of water it could generate from existing infrastructure would help.
“Congress has to do something for us to even have hope,” Barcellos said.