Long-Awaited Plan To Fight California’s Epic Drought Passes Senate With GOP Support

Thijs Talluto, 3, of Los Angeles, plays in a fountain at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles Monday, May, 12, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NICK UT
Thijs Talluto, 3, of Los Angeles, plays in a fountain at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles Monday, May, 12, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NICK UT

In a rare showing of bipartisanship on an environmental issue, the U.S. Senate on Thursday night voted unanimously to pass a bill providing relief for California’s epic drought — though some environmentalists say the compromised bill does not go far enough to truly combat the problem.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was able to overcome Republican objections to her bill, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014, by scrapping $300 million in spending on various drought-relief projects. The bill was designed to be able to fast-track through the Senate, bypassing both committee review and public debate after weeks of closed-door negotiations with GOP Senators.

In an interview with South California Public Radio, the bill’s co-sponsor Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) admitted that the compromised version is “not a great bill, but it’s a good bill,” and assured that environmentalists got “almost everything they wanted.” But Patricia Schifferle of environmental group Pacific Advocates told the station otherwise, saying it puts tribal, fishing and northern California water rights interests “in a lower priority in the water bucket line and moves Westlands and other westside irrigators up the water bucket line.”

As of last week, severe drought officially covered every inch of California, setting up “unprecedented”fire conditions in several areas. The extreme drought and heat have depleted reservoirs and even aquifers, increasing the state’s chance of earthquakes, as a new Nature study found. More than 20,000 residents had fled their homes from fires in Southern California last week.

To combat this, Feinstein said her bill would “authorize immediate action” to ease restrictions on exporting water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to farms and cities, with the ultimate goal to “maximize pumping … for the length of the emergency.”

The bill’s passage sets up the stage for negotiations with the House, which last month passed a $12 billion drought relief bill for the state. Under that bill, however, California would scrap numerous environmental regulations and permanently halt restoration efforts along the San Joaquin River in an effort to provide more irrigation flows to the state’s massive agricultural industry — provisions largely seen as environmental disasters. The Republican-led House has a history of stripping environmental protections from disaster relief legislation, last year cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in coastal rebuilding from a Hurricane Sandy recovery package.

Republican lawmakers also have a notable history of opposing disaster-related funding — except when its in their home states. Of the 36 no-votes from Republican Senators on the Sandy relief package, at least 31 came from Republicans who had previously supported emergency aid efforts following disasters in their own states.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, who ultimately voted for the Senate’s bill, said he would support an amendment to halt conservation efforts for the delta smelt, saying it was a “stupid approach” to try and protect the environment while California’s economy is hurting from the drought. “I think we have some of the stupidest people in the environmental movement,” he said.