Congress

California water politics complicate House panel’s oversight

Natural Resources chairman wants to investigate Interior secretary’s role in water allocation report that benefited a committee member’s district

California Democratic Rep. Jim Costa represents part of California’s San Joaquin Valley, a drought-prone region where the politics surrounding agricultural and water interests can often trump partisanship. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona wants his committee to give him subpoena authority for multiple possible investigations, but California Democrat Jim Costa may vote against that as the panel considers whether Interior Secretary David Bernhardt improperly influenced a decision to send more water to his district.

Costa told CQ Roll Call he’s not sure he can support giving Grijalva such unlimited subpoena authority. Costa said he discussed the matter with the chairman, who plans a committee vote on the question in January, and said he’d support a “specific subpoena” in the panel’s current investigation into the Bureau of Land Management headquarters relocation. 

“I think on a case-by-case basis I obviously want to support the chair,” Costa said while rushing through a Capitol corridor without elaborating. In a written statement, his office said Costa will decide how he will vote “when we see what we are voting on.”

Costa represents part of California’s San Joaquin Valley, a drought-prone region where the politics surrounding agricultural and water interests can often trump partisanship. And his anxiety occurs amid an ongoing Natural Resources Committee investigation that could upend a decision by the Trump administration to send more federally controlled water to his district in the future. 

[Democrats’ Bernhardt probe has California’s Cox in a tough spot]

Grijalva and California Rep. Jared Huffman, chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, are probing whether Bernhardt influenced government science at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the benefit of a California water district, Westlands Water District, that Bernhardt represented as a lobbyist before joining the Trump administration. 

Bernhardt, who was absolved by the Interior Office of Inspector General of allegations by congressional Democrats that he improperly influenced pesticide regulations, did not improperly exert influence on the California water decision either, a spokeswoman for his office has said.

Reversal

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service released a report Oct. 22 concluding that the Bureau of Reclamation could maximize water shipments to Westlands and other California water districts while conserving endangered salmon, steelhead trout and killer whales that eat the fish that migrate to and from the Pacific Ocean. But a draft version of the report obtained by the Los Angeles Times in August had the opposite view: Boosting water deliveries would imperil those species. 

Grijalva and Huffman want to know if Bernhardt was involved in changing the report’s findings. If the committee finds evidence of undue meddling in the science, that could result in future decision-making over California water supply getting overturned in federal court. Grijalva may need to issue subpoenas to complete that investigation.

Costa was first elected in 2004. On water issues, he has typically sided with agricultural interests over environmentalist concerns. In 2015 and in 2017, he voted in support of Republican-authored bills that would increase water storage capacity in California and reduce species protections related to water infrastructure construction. 

He has also raised money from Westlands. Since 2004, he has received at least $34,700 in campaign donations from Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham, according to a CQ Roll Call review of federal campaign finance data. He also has gotten at least $28,600 in contributions from Don Peracchi, president of Westlands’ board of directors, since 2011. 

Four Democrats would need to vote against Grijalva to stop him from getting subpoena power. While Costa wouldn’t be able to block it by himself, a dissenting vote could create troublesome optics for a Democratic House already wrestling with the political weight of the president’s impeachment. 

Neighbors

Costa is not the only central California Democrat on the committee whose congressional district benefited from the reversal of the draft report. Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman TJ Cox’s district includes farm communities served by Westlands’ water and previously has said he joined the committee to focus on “the water issues.”

Cox beat three-term Republican David Valadao in 2018 with less than 51 percent of the vote and is expected to face a tough fight for reelection with Valadao currently vying for a rematch. His race is ranked Tilt Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan R. Gonzales. 

Asked last week if he also had concerns about giving Grijalva subpoena authority, Cox said, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” His investigations panel has not played a role in Grijalva’s Bernhardt investigation.

Huffman and another California Democrat on the panel, Grace F. Napolitano, said in an interview last week that Costa would probably vote against giving Grijalva subpoena authority. Napolitano predicted he would be the only Democrat to do so. 

“Probably Mr. Costa, he’s the only Democrat,” said Napolitano. Huffman said Costa would vote against it because his “politics” are “on the Republican side of California water.” 

Huffman said Grijalva has spoken with members on the committee about “how he would intend to use that authority to provide some comfort level and assurance.” He isn’t aware of talks to put limits on the chairman’s subpoena authority. 

“I don’t think there’ll be any hard boundaries,” he said. 

Adam Sarvana, a spokesperson for Democrats on the committee, said in an email last week that legislation authorizing the subpoena authority hasn’t been written yet. “Can’t say what the parameters will be,” Sarvana said.

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