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California Drought Exposes Another Political Divide

Image: US-CALIFORNIA-WATER-DROUGHT

A sign over a highway in Glendale, California warns motorists to save water in response to the state's severe drought, February 14, 2014. US President Barack Obama is visiting drought-stricken California today and is expected to announce more than $160 million in federal financial aid to help California recover from the crippling drought that is threatening the state's agriculture industry. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECKROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ROBYN BECK / AFP - Getty Images

As President Barack Obama travels to California to announce relief measures for the state’s worst drought in 100 years, the typically unsexy issue of water has emerged as a political issue, pitting Democrats and Republicans against one another.

The president will announce relief including $100 million in farm bill disaster assistance for ranchers who lost livestock because of the conditions, and another $5 million toward conservation projects for farmers and ranchers. And similar to Gov. Jerry Brown’s request to state agencies, the president is asking federal facilities to cut back water usage on new, non-essential projects.

But the Democratic-controlled Senate and GOP-controlled House both have their own measures to expand assistance beyond the White House’s authority. The House bill set the political stakes. It approved its measure on Feb. 5 by nearly party-line votes.

The GOP measure would end efforts to restore the now-dry San Joaquin River and divert a greater share of water to the Central Valley, where the farming lands are nearly depleted of water.

“Today our families, farmers and businesses are paying 100 percent for water they never receive, jeopardizing the ability of California farmers and laborers to work and grow the food that feeds the nation; that is a value that no government subsidy or handout can substitute,” penned California Republican Reps. David Valadao, Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy in a Sacramento Bee op-ed on Thursday.

But critics charge that the diversion would eliminate protections of endangered fish under the Endangered Species Act and also siphon off water from other parts of the state reliant on the supply.

“[The House bill] almost seems politically motivated instead of a collaborative approach of how we deal with these water resource problems,” said Lester Snow, who is now the executive director of the California Water Foundation but previously held top posts at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other California water agencies. “It creates the illusion that you can suspend environmental laws and there will suddenly be more water.”

Indeed, Snow and others in the water policy community say the House bill appears to be more of an effort to earn political points. Reps. Valadao and Devin Nunes -- Republicans who represent the region -- face potentially tough re-election campaigns in November.

Another criticism of the GOP legislation: It would erase years of negotiations at the state level, a move that Michael Hanemann, a 45-year professor of environment and resource economics at The University of California, Berkeley, fears would set a bad precedent of the federal government overreaching into state water negotiations.

“Water rights have always been a matter of state law,” Hanemann said. “Water authorities and managers will do whatever it takes to get people water. That’s managing a crisis.”

Meanwhile, the Senate -- led by Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- countered with its own legislation on Tuesday, which would, in part, provide $100 million in emergency funding to help maximize the water flow, another $100 million for further water conservation projects, and build temporary barriers to protect fish populations.

Rep. Nunes welcomed the potential for negotiations with the Senate. In a statement to The Fresno Bee, he said, "At long last, a water bill has been introduced in the Senate. Although I would have preferred a bill providing for stronger action and a long-term solution, this bill -- once it passes the Senate -- will finally provide a basis for the House and Senate to negotiate an action plan to bring Californians relief from this man-made water crisis."

The dueling measures, however, highlight years of divide between varying government entities, environmentalists, farmers and cities on how best to advance water policy. Water is delivered through a fragmented system that includes nearly 200 agencies. And the Senate’s proposed measure is a short-term solution.

“There’s not a willingness [from these government entities] to manage water in the long run,” Hanemann said. “When the crises pass, we breathe a sigh of relief and forget about things.”