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California Drought Relief Pits Farmers Against Fishermen

Feb. 5 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House passed legislation that would allocate more water for irrigation in parts of California to help ease a worsening drought, a measure opposed by President Barack Obama’s administration.

The vote was 229-191.

“There will be thousands of individuals in California, there will be cities that will go without water this year,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking House Republican, told reporters yesterday.

The legislation is part of a longstanding fight in California over water rights that pits farmers against fishermen. The standoff has intensified amid one of the worst droughts in memory.

The drought is forcing farmers in the fertile central valley region to leave thousands of acres of fields fallow and has 17 rural towns so low on drinking water that the state may need to start trucking in supplies.

The Obama administration said today in a statement that the House measure would “undermine years of collaboration between local, state and federal stakeholders to develop a sound water quality control plan.” The president would veto the bill if it reached his desk, according to the statement.

California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has called the measure an “unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis.”

‘Not Possible’

“It falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies,” Brown wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to House Natural Resources Committee leaders.

The measure would limit water redirected by the Interior Department for fish and wildlife purposes to 800,000 acre-feet per year, down from about 1.2 million acre-feet currently. An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover one acre of flat land a foot deep, and is used to measure large volumes.

The Interior Department would be required to give another 800,000 acre-feet of water to users of the Central Valley Project, a network of water delivery systems that provides irrigation water for about one-third of California’s farmland.

Environmental groups opposing the bill say it could threaten California fisheries and the restoration of salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and Delta smelt.

Feinstein, Boxer

McCarthy and other supporters have said the measure could be a starting point in negotiations with the Senate. California’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, oppose the House bill and are working on a proposal, Bloomberg BNA reported.

The House passed a similar measure in 2012 in a 246-175 vote that was ignored in the Senate.

“You have to act,” McCarthy said regarding the Senate. “If you don’t like the bill, then tell us what you do support. Because as a makeup we can go to conference and get something done. But stop ignoring a problem.”

McCarthy represents a district that includes much of Bakersfield, about 110 miles north of Los Angeles, and its suburbs.

The bill is H.R. 3964.

To contact the reporter on this story: Derek Wallbank in Washington at dwallbank@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net

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