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UPDATE: Feinstein's drought bill passes Senate; still has critics

Despite some recent rain, California is still behind in average rainfall so far for the year.
Despite some recent rain, California is still behind in average rainfall so far for the year.
Photo by IRRI Photos via Flickr Creative Commons

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The U.S. Senate tonight passed a drought relief bill. But critics are unhappy with the latest version.

Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein fast-tracked this latest version of the Emergency Drought Relief Act by unanimous consent. Feinstein says the measure "authorizes immediate actions to help California."

Environmentalists are not happy. Patricia Schifferle of Pacific Advocates says the new bill allows reservoir storage to continue until the Governor formally declares the drought to be over. It also circumvents historic water agreements and legal rulings to allow greater water exports from the Sacramento Delta to growers in the Central Valley.

Schifferle says it puts tribal, fishing and northern California water rights interests "in a lower priority in the water bucket line and moves Westlands and other westside irrigators up the water bucket line."

The Westlands Water District is the largest agricultural water district in the country and spent $600,000 last year on lobbying efforts.

Environmentalists aren’t the only ones unhappy with the bill. East Bay Democrat George Miller has tussled with Feinstein for years over water policy. Earlier this month, he and other House Democrats from northern and central California met with Senator Feinstein to discuss their concerns. "We had one conversation with her," he says, "and we haven’t heard anything back. Apparently if you disagree, then she stops talking to people."

Senator Barbara Boxer says Miller represents northern California. "Dianne and I represent the whole state." Boxer cosponsored Feinstein's drought bill and heads the Environment and Public Works Committee. She says environmentalists got “almost everything they wanted.” Boxer admits it’s “not a great bill, but it’s a good bill.” The greater danger, she says, is what happens when the measure faces a conference committee and House Republicans start adding riders.

Following the vote, a group of California Republican lawmakers released this statement:

“While Senator Feinstein’s bill is a starting point, it fails to address our state’s long term needs. We now have an opportunity to find a balance between her temporary measure and the comprehensive bill passed by the House.”

The House passed its own version of drought legislation — cosponsored by the entire California GOP delegation — that rewrites water contracts and sets aside more environmental protections. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare, who wrote a House drought bill two years ago, has been agitating for the Senate to pass something to move the process forward. He says he's ready to sit down and talk. He won't say what kind of compromise GOP House members are willing to accept. "We’ve agreed to negotiate," he says, "so we’ll go from there."

Senator Feinstein says she hopes negotiations can "proceed quickly and bypass many of the controversial issues that have been raised in the past."

If a conference committee alters Feinstein’s drought bill, it would have to come back to the Senate for a vote. Boxer says she’s made it clear to Feinstein that she won’t support any bill that waives environmental landmark laws.

Drought Bill Hotline Version (1)