WASHINGTON – The House has passed a bill designed to give state and federal agencies authority to move more water in coming months to California's farm belt.
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However, the Senate is not expected to take up the legislation before Congress adjourns, meaning lawmakers will likely have to start over next year.
The state is suffering from its third year of drought, and GOP lawmakers in the House have complained that environmental protections designed to protect fish and wildlife have exacerbated the water shortage in the state's San Joaquin Valley. The bill would increase water exports to the region.
GOP lawmakers used their majority to pass the bill by a 230-182 vote. Opponents called the bill a water grab designed to help farmers at the expense of others, particularly the state's salmon industry.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
House Republicans are using the final days of the current Congress to push through another drought relief bill for California's farm belt and other water users to the south.
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The new effort is advertised as a temporary measure that would allow agencies to divert water from northern rivers and reservoirs during the rainy season and send it to farms in the San Joaquin Valley, where hundreds of thousands of acres went unplanted and untended this year.
Even with some recent rains and snow, more than 99 percent of California remains in a moderate or severe drought.
The legislation has an uphill climb even to be considered in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and White House advisers have already recommended that President Barack Obama veto the bill if it ever does reach his desk.
Still, the debate gives the GOP another opportunity to remind the state's San Joaquin Valley which political party has tried to take steps to help them. The water issue did not play well for Democratic lawmakers during the latest election season, although the party's incumbents did manage to win midterm races that turned out to be more competitive than expected.
The House debated the measure Monday, with about a dozen California lawmakers participating. A vote was expected Tuesday afternoon.
The debate took on familiar arguments with lawmakers from the Central Valley arguing for sending more water to the region, and opponents from other regions arguing that it amounted to a water grab.
"There's been cutback. We've all had cutbacks, all of us, but now you just don't get to go take your neighbor's water," said Democratic Rep. George Miller, who represents a San Francisco Bay area district.
"This is about San Francisco and Los Angeles getting all of their water and never giving us one drop," countered Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. "And they've taken the water from our communities."
The GOP has passed drought relief measures during the past two congressional sessions. This time, GOP lawmakers pursued a bill that's much closer to what Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer helped pass in their chamber.
The new effort, for example, scuttled the previously passed language that directed agencies to operate without regard to the Endangered Species Act.
The latest effort takes a more targeted approach. One provision directs federal agencies to keep a gate open to the greatest extent possible at a key channel transporting fresh water to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The gate is sometimes closed to help migrating salmon. Another provision calls for increased flows of water south, unless it can be shown that they are harming the long-term survival of the Delta smelt.
A group of California Republicans and Feinstein tried to work out a compromise over the past six months, but with time running short before Congress adjourns and many criticizing the behind-closed-doors nature of the negotiations, Feinstein declared last month that a bill could not get done this year. And Boxer echoed criticism from Northern California Democratic members of Congress that they were cut out of the negotiations.
Both senators said they could not support the House bill. Feinstein acknowledged it included previsions that unanimously passed the Senate in May. But she said she could not support other provisions that she said waive environmental protections. Still, she believed the two sides are making progress toward a bipartisan bill.
Boxer was much more critical.
"For months, Republicans refused to let House Democrats have a seat at the table, they refused to share their proposal with all the stakeholders, and now they are trying jam through legislation that will only reignite California's water wars," Boxer said.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif., said the government has exacerbated the drought conditions in the Central Valley, leading to unemployment rates in some communities of more than 30 percent.
"What does this bill do? It says in the rainy season, when the floodwaters are high, can we not move water down through the valley?" McCarthy said. "That's what this bill does. It also gives the safeguard that if the fish are harmed, to stop."
The White House said the bill fails to "equitably address critical elements of California's complex water challenges."