House panel okays massive water plan

A divided House committee on Wednesday approved a long-delayed, much-revised California water bill that still overflows with unresolved disputes.

May 6th, 2004

By Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2004 -- A divided House committee on Wednesday approved a long-delayed, much-revised California water bill that still overflows with unresolved disputes.

By passing the $689 million package, the House Resources Committee and its San Joaquin Valley members postponed some crucial negotiations about price tags and policies. The Senate is considering a less expensive California water bill.

By winning committee approval on a voice vote, backers of the CalFed program also set the stage for cutting some deals.

"We have an opportunity, once and for all, to resolve the issues that once were thought unresolvable," said Tracy Republican Richard Pombo, chairman of the Resources Committee.

CalFed is the ambitious state and federal effort that envisions protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, restoring wetlands and rivers and building additional reservoirs. Ultimately, CalFed planners anticipate spending upward of $10 billion.

California voters already have kicked in some of that, by passing a $3.4 billion water bond measure two years ago. Federal funding, though, has been at a relative trickle; in part, because Congress hasn't been able to pass legislation.

The House bill includes $389 million for CalFed projects that include improving fish screens at the Tracy pumping plants, strengthening delta levees, and preventing algae when San Luis Reservoir water levels fall.

The bill also marks a continued go-ahead for studying the feasibility of raising Shasta Dam and building new reservoirs on the Upper San Joaquin River and near the Sacramento Valley town of Maxwell, among others.

"Those of us who have pushed for additional surface (water) storage are finally being heard," Merced Democrat Dennis Cardoza said.

The House bill includes an unusual fast-track procedure for building dams that the Senate bill does not. Normally, Congress first approves studying a water project, and then authorizes construction. The House bill packs these two steps together, so that construction could automatically proceed following the feasibility studies unless Congress says otherwise within 120 days.

"I believe we are making a very serious mistake," warned Los Angeles-area Democrat Grace Napolitano. "I fear it will not produce any new storage, but only new lawsuits."

Cardoza and Mariposa Republican George Radanovich defend the streamlined authorizations as a necessary means for increasing California's water supply.


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