Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Letter seeking Delta-pumping bill support exposes sticky water politics

To Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, it was the easiest vote in the world.

He wanted his colleagues to approve sending a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her support a House resolution that seeks more Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water for the Valley’s west side.

But, as with so much else in politics, the request turned out to be anything but simple.

Phil Larson

Larson’s initial motion passed 3-0 — but Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Debbie Poochigian abstained. They wanted the mull it over and, for Borgeas, to check with other members of the Valley’s congressional delegation before backing the letter.

The bill has been introduced by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. But Borgeas noted that in the past few years Tulare Republican Devin Nunes had also introduced legislation that would increase delta pumping — including one last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.

Larson was frustrated. How could politics seep into a request so simple?

The board, he felt, should support all efforts — be they Republican or Democrat — to bring more water to the Valley’s west side.

Still, he agreed to the delay — just a few hours until the afternoon.

At issue is Costa’s H.R. 1927, which would tweak existing management plans — known as biological opinions — covering threatening Delta smelt and endangered salmon to allow more pumping.

Andreas Borgeas

Johnny Amaral, Nunes’ chief-of-staff, says Nunes’ 2009 effort was almost identical to Costa’s, but Costa’s people say the current effort is more nuanced in that it wouldn’t eliminate the biological opinions.

Nunes’ 2009 effort would have suspended the biological opinions and set pumping levels at 100% of the contracted amounts annually. Democrats controlled the House at the time. The effort went nowhere.

But Nunes had better luck last year, with the Republicans in control. He succeeded in passing an ambitious, pro-agriculture water bill that would have significantly increased water deliveries to the Valley’s west side.

Both Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, were opposed to the legislation It died in the Senate.

“The fact of the matter is if Democrats in the House and Senate actually cared about a reliable water supply, they would have supported language to allow the pumps to run when the it was offered in 2009,” Amaral said.

Rep. Devin Nunes

“It’s all just a big game to them, playing to their radical environmentalist pals. To quote Yogi Berra, its ‘deja vu all over again.’ Except now, communities and families are being devastated for no good reason. It’s time for the Senate to follow the leadership displayed in the House and do something useful — for once.”

For starters, he said the Senate should pass its own legislation so both sides can have a starting position for negotiations. Costa’s bill messes that up, he said, because it changes the House’s already established position.

“It’s like we’re negotiating with ourselves right now,” he said.

Costa has a different outlook. His strategy is for the House to pass something that has a chance to get through the Senate. He believes his current bill does that.

Which brings it all back around to the Fresno County Supervisors.

Rep. Jim Costa

They reconvened Tuesday afternoon and debated just what the letter to Feinstein should say.

Borgeas’ suggestion was that it say the board supports not only Costa’s current bill, but recognize other efforts, too, including ones “approved by the House but that have not yet been approved by the Senate.”

It is important, Borgeas said, to give recognition to Nunes’ efforts.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea then chimed in, saying that language went too far and “starts making it partisan.”

So the specific reference to being “approved by the House” but “not yet approved by the Senate” was eliminated, and the final wording only referenced current and past efforts to increase westside water deliveries.

The letter was finally approved — 5-0.

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