WASHINGTON - A Republican bill that would increase the amount of water available to farmers in California's fertile, but parched Central Valley, passed the GOP-majority House on a mostly party-line vote of 229-191 Wednesday.
Seven Democrats voted for it and two Republicans voted against. Californians were split along party lines, with Democratic Reps. Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert and Sam Farr of Carmel voting no and Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare voting yes.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act is unlikely to advance in the Democratic-majority Senate, which ignored a similar House-passed bill two years ago.
The measure would increase the share of water farmers and dairy producers could access under Central Valley Project, a federal water-management effort launched in 1933 to combat chronic shortages. Under the bill, the increased agricultural quota would result from the elimination of the allotment for the San Francisco Bay Delta to improve the habitat for Delta smelt and other fish.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, the region's farms receive 5 million acre feet of water a year, or about 1.63 trillion gallons. A total of 800,000 acre feet - about 261 billion gallons - are allocated annually for fish and wildlife.
Under the House bill's most controversial provision, Central Valley's agricultural interests would get all of those 800,000 acre feet if the Obama administration fails to raise the agricultural allotment by that amount by 2018.
The Central Valley supplies much of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts and around one-fifth of the milk and other dairy products consumed in the U.S.
The bill's backers said they want to help the region's economy and keep food prices low for consumers across the U.S. Critics said the measure would overturn state and federal laws and established science.
Central Valley producers have long resented water rationing and want to increase the amount they can use. Environmentalists say the smelt is a barometer of the San Francisco Bay's health and have gone to court to preserve water shipments from Central Valley.
The tension between the two sides has increased as California's drought has worsened -- and was reflected in the heated floor debate between California's Republican and Democratic House members.
Nunes accused coastal Californians of siphoning water away from other parts of the state with little regard for environmental rules. Yet, he said, Democrats object when Republicans put agricultural interests over those of "stupid little fish."
"They make our people that live in the San Joaquin Valley live by the rules that they don't want to live by," he said.
Fish die because Northern Californians dump sewage into the bay, he added.
"Stop dumping the sewer water into the Delta if you care about the fish. If you care about the fish, give up your water in Yosemite National Park, let that water go out to the delta," Nunes said. "The time for stealing water has ended."
The bill was sponsored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, a freshman lawmaker who faces a tough re-election fight in November. Nunes, considered a safe bet to win re-election, and another safe Central Valley lawmaker, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, were the main co-sponsors.
House Democrats and California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer oppose the bill. Feinstein recently called it an "irresponsible proposal" that would be "profoundly dangerous for California."
Valadao, a dairy farmer, said continuing the water restrictions will raise produce and milk prices because of the Central Valley's outsized role in feeding the nation.
"Anybody … who votes against this bill is literally saying, 'I want to raise the cost of food (for) everybody in the United States,'" Valadao said.
Rep. Mike Thompson, a Northern California Democrat whose district includes the wine-growing Napa Valley, said the Central Valley's water shortages are caused by scant snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the lack of rain throughout California. Federal water management policies aren't to blame, he said.
"It's not a manmade problem, it's a drought," Thompson said. "Proponents of this bill say those who oppose it care more about fish than people. These comments cheapen the debate. They insult the intelligence of Californians."
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, urged Republicans to solve water problems collectively rather than advance partisan measures that will go nowhere.
"We're ready to work with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle as Californians," the freshman lawmaker said. "This isn't about Democrats versus Republicans. We can't pit one community against another."
Contact Raju Chebium at email@example.com; Twitter: @rchebium