Washington -- House Republicans ratcheted up pressure on California Democrats to defend river and fish restorations in the delta amid a historic statewide drought, passing legislation Wednesday that would ship scarce water from Northern California to parched farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
Dismissed by Bay Area Democrats as a political ploy to boost the fortunes of Central Valley Republicans in the November elections, the legislation by first-term Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford (Kings County), nonetheless draws national attention to tensions over California's dwindling water supplies.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, one of the key backers of the bill, ridiculed San Franciscans who ask why farmers plant crops in the desert.
"They never liked the fact that farmers and farmworkers were making what was once a dry area of the state the Garden of Eden of this world," Nunes said. "They don't want to admit to themselves when they live in the beautiful cities of Hollywood and San Francisco, all these great cities on the coast of California, that it's a desert. They don't have any water either."
The bill that the House approved Wednesday on a 229-191 partisan vote, HR3964, is a replay of water legislation by Nunes that passed the House in 2012 but died in the Senate.
The bill would permanently halt efforts to reconnect the San Joaquin River to the Pacific Ocean through San Francisco Bay, and permanently reallocate water south to Central Valley farmers. It would override protections for salmon and the endangered delta smelt, which Republicans mock as a useless, tiny fish but which environmentalists see as an indicator species.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove (Sacramento County), called the bill "a theft of water from someone to give to somebody else, plain and simple." The water, he said, would be "stolen" from the delta, from the salmon fishing industry of California's northern coast and from East Bay cities, and delivered to those whose water rights were intended to give way in periods of shortage.