Backroom Dealings to Pass CA Drought Bills Violate Democratic Process

But bickering among lawmakers might save the day for McCloud River and the Winnemem Wintu

Secret negotiations are fascinating to behold, especially when the fate of a Native American tribe hangs in the balance, not to mention the fate of California’s environment. The 2015 window is closing for Senator Dianne Feinstein to pass emergency drought legislation, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act, that would, among other things, prime the pump with $600 million for new federal water storage projects in California. If the legislation is passed, two new major dam projects — the Sites Dam in northern California and the Temperance Flats Dam in central California — would gain momentum, as would an irrational plan to make the Shasta Dam 18.5 feet higher.

Photo of Shasta DamPhoto by Christopher McLeod Raising the Shasta Dam would destroy most of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe’s remaining ancestral and ceremonial sites along the McCloud River.

The stakes are high for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, whose traditional homeland was flooded when Shasta Dam was completed in the 1945. Raising the dam would destroy most of the tribe’s remaining ancestral and ceremonial sites along the McCloud River, and would also cause irreparable ecological damage to the river.

In addition to Feinstein’s bill, which she introduced to the Senate in July, House Republicans have passed their own drought bill, HR 2898. Feinstein opposes the House bill because it guts Endangered Species Act protections for fish, overrides Clean Water Act provisions, and basically provides more water for southern California farms and cities. But for the past several weeks, Feinstein and Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have been in closed-door negotiations to see if they can reach an agreement and get a compromise drought bill attached to a must-pass end-of-year appropriations bill.

These secret negotiations have, however, not been going too well. Feinstein was reportedly enraged when McCarthy sent his own 92-page bill, ostensibly approved by Feinstein, to the House Appropriations Committee on December 4, with the idea that it would be inserted into the omnibus spending bill. Feinstein quickly issued two statements denouncing McCarthy’s bill, explaining that she had not approved the draft and that the plan “stands in opposition to my desire to do a bill in an open and public manner.” As last week came to a close, Republicans pulled out of negotiations, blaming Feinstein.

On December 11, an undeterred Feinstein issued a statement dismissing the House Republicans and promising to move forward with her bill without them: “I plan to present the bill to Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell and discuss the best way to move the bill forward,” she said in the statement. Presumably, she still plans to attach it to the must-pass omnibus bill, rather than passing it separately.

The deadline to pass the omnibus spending bill was December 11, but since lawmakers passed a five-day extension on the 11th, Congress, which adjourns on December 18, now has until the end of this week to get the omnibus bill passed. If the omnibus bill isn’t passed there will be a government shutdown. And if the politicians fail to reach a deal on the drought bill this week, the whole mess starts over in 2016.

Deja vu? Yes. In November 2014, Feinstein was embarrassed when four months of work on a water bill went down the drain. The bill collapsed when her secret negotiations with House Republications — which excluded California Democrats — were exposed in the media. In 2014, the plan was much the same as it is now: quietly attach the water bill to an end-of-year must-pass spending bill. Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA), who was kept out of the secret negotiations in 2014 and has been excluded once again from negotiations in 2015, commented to the San Francisco Chronicle, “The usual cast of attorneys for irrigation interests” wrote the bills. Speaking to The Fresno Bee, he added, “this time of year, I always sleep with one eye open.”

These back room, last minute deals are reminiscent of what happened to the Apache at Oak Flat in Arizona in 2014, when a late-night rider attached to a must-pass defense appropriation gave a billion dollar copper deposit to a London-based mining company owned by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. The copper lies beneath a culturally-important place of initiation for the Apache, and the Apache have been occupying the site and gathering national and international support opposing the secret deal ever since.

As the drought bill drama unfolds in Washington, other pieces of the master water plan continue to play out in California, with scant media attention. In November, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District board authorized the purchase of 20,369 acres in the Delta. Environmental advocates believe the purchase is aimed at facilitating Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial $25 billion twin tunnel scheme, which would divert water from the Sacramento River for distribution throughout California. The land is valued at roughly $7,500 to $12,000 an acre.

This power play is similar to southern California’s Westlands Water District’s $30 million purchase of 3,000 acres on northern California’s McCloud River in early 2007, which Westlands admitted was meant to strengthen the water district’s hand and help get Shasta Dam raised. “Our purpose in buying the property was only to ensure there would be no additional impediments if the Bureau of Reclamation concludes it’s feasible to raise the dam,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager and general counsel for Westlands, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

With the omnibus bill due Wednesday, and Congress adjourning on Friday, time is running out to pass a drought bill in 2015. Whatever the outcome of this bill, the secret meetings, last minute deals, and multi-million dollar land grabs all add up to a democracy in very deep trouble.

Learn more about Feinstein’s drought bill and help the Winnemem Wintu Tribe fight the raising of Shasta Dam by signing Chief Caleen Sisk’s CREDO Petition.

UPDATE: Congressional negotiators approved a 2,009-page $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill on Wednesday, December 16. The final bill does not include California drought legislation. The omnibus bill was approved by both the Senate and House on Friday, December 18, and will now be sent to President Obama. Senator Feinstein will start over in 2016.

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