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House Wading Into California’s Long-Running Water War

Photo caption: A tug boat pushes a barge down the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joa...

Photo credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

A tug boat pushes a barge down the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Rio Vista, Sept. 23, 2013. Along with providing a source for commercial transportation and pleasure craft, the delta also provides much of the water for central and southern California cities and irrigation water for San Joaquin Valley farmers.

Wading into a longstanding California water war, the House Wednesday endorsed a Republican plan to shift more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers and cut the flow for threatened fish and growers in another part of the state.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., tried to strike that proposal from a spending bill, but lost a 247-169 vote that broke mostly along party lines. He says the plan would pump too much water to Central Valley growers at the expense of the inland Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The vote was a victory for Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., and other Republicans, who represent communities where the farm economy is badly suffering from a longstanding drought.

Valadao argues that water from California's relatively wet winter could be going to the farmers he represents rather than flowing to the Pacific. He said during debate Tuesday evening that he has shanty towns in his district because of high unemployment in farm communities.

"This is not in a Third World country. This is in the United States of America, this is right here in California, and this is something that's happening in these communities because of this water being wasted," Valadao said.

On the other side were Democrats such as McNerney, who argued that Valadao's measure would hurt delta farmers and harm fish stocks that require fresh water to migrate to the ocean.

"One region benefits and another region suffers. That is what exactly is going to happen here," McNerney said. "The delta region will suffer. Is that what we really want?"

Battles between Republicans controlling the House and California's two Democratic senators have for years prevented Congress from acting on the state's water issues.

"The fact is we have a broken water system," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., among a handful of Democrats who voted for Valadao's measure. He added that flawed federal environmental policies have meant that billions of gallons of water that could have gone to irrigation and were wasted.

Valadao's bill has been attached to a spending bill funding the Energy Department and water projects. The Senate has passed companion legislation that does not take on the water battle. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is a top negotiator on the underlying spending bill.

Republicans also moved Wednesday to separately add Valadao's legislation to an unrelated energy policy measure, prompting an abbreviated rerun of Tuesday night's debate.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said the GOP legislation would "gut the environmental protections of the delta and the San Francisco Bay, destroy the fisheries, destroy the economy of the delta and water for millions of people."

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