In the News

Mike Gardner - SACRAMENTO — California’s historic drought continued to draw responses on several fronts Wednesday, including in the House of Representatives where the Republican majority pushed through contentious legislation that would weaken environmental protections so that more water can flow to thirsty farms and cities in the Central Valley.

That measure, however, appears to have little chance of becoming law. The Senate has routinely blocked similar attempts and President Barack Obama has already promised a veto should it reach his desk.

Meanwhile, California Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin again warned that rationing may be on the way if drought-busting storms fail to materialize in the waning weeks of winter.

“We may quickly get to the point that we’re asking all Californians to take mandatory cuts in their water supplies,” Cowin said.

The state last week said it will not be able to send any water to most cities and farms this year unless the weather turns. A system is approaching the Sierra and may dump a few feet of snow at the higher elevations over the next several days. But that will not be enough to recover from three years of remarkably dry winters.

In related developments Wednesday:

• San Diego Interim Mayor Todd Gloria said the city is offering a free residential water survey program to help homeowners detect waste inside and outside. The city is also promoting a program to allow homeowners to finance water and energy efficiency projects through their property tax assessments that will amortize the costs over a decade or more.

• The state Fish and Game Commission closed several Northern California rivers and streams to recreational fishing to save populations. The drastic action, supported by most fishing groups, was the first of its kind in response to a drought. It affects about 5 percent of the state’s waterways.

• Federal agencies announced a $14 million grant program to help agricultural water districts conserve and to protect the soil if land is left idle.

In Congress, the debate over the bill is tinged with politics. Republicans see it as a way to shore up support among San Joaquin Valley farmers and farm labor. But Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown, are resisting, saying it would do little to solve the water shortage while doing long-term harm to fish and wildlife.

Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, voted against the bill. He said it would also take water away from Northern California communities and intrude in California’s self-governance rights.

“We can’t make it rain, and transferring water from one place to another, as this bill does, won’t solve the long-term problem,” Peters said in a statement. “The drought will only be managed through conservation, expanding our water storage capabilities, and increasing the diversity of our water supply.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., an Alpine Republican, supported the measure. “California’s current drought conditions are exacerbated by onerous federal regulations that are harming families and businesses.

"This bill will revise current regulations to improve water deliveries to Californians, and produce more than $100 million in taxpayer savings. Those are two very good things,” he said in a statement.

Sponsored by the California GOP caucus, the measure would roll back environmental protections that limit pumping water to the Central Valley and also halt using water to restore the San Joaquin River.