House Speaker John Boehner dug his shiny loafers into a swath of powder dry Kern County dirt on Wednesday and promised to move quickly on legislation aimed at easing the pain of California's historic drought.
Boehner and his partners on the legislation -- House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford -- all agreed that, yes, the drought is the biggest obstacle to farmers getting adequate water in the near term.
But they denounced as "idiocy" and "nonsense" California's management of its water system.
"In my part of the world we would shake our heads at how things work here, " Boehner said. "It's nonsense that a bureaucracy would favor fish over people."
He referred to the delta smelt and other fish protected under the Endangered Species Act. In an attempt to bolster those populations, water exports from the San Joaquin-Sacramento delta have been curtailed.
The proposed bill would attempt to bring "reason" to how the system is managed, if only during the drought emergency, the politicians said.
The bill has yet to be written, but its three main prongs would seek to increase pumping out of the delta -- if water is available -- to agreed-upon 1994 levels, suspend the San Joaquin River restoration settlement and create a Senate-House task force to come up with long term solutions.
The consequences of the drought were brought into sharp focus when local farmer Larry Starrh talked about his family being forced to let 1,000 acres of productive almond trees die this year for lack of water.
"Water is life," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "But sadly in this world, water has become about power, water is used as a weapon."
As real and painful as the water situation is, there was more than a hint of politics lurking around the edges of Wednesday's press conference. The first two prongs of the proposed bill have already been rejected by the Senate last year. Increased pumping and suspension of the San Joaquin River restoration agreement were both parts of H.R. 1837, introduced by Nunes, passed by the House and left to whither and die on the steps of the Senate.
Though all the politicians at Wednesday's conference insisted this bill was different because it would implement those measures on an emergency-only basis, Senate reaction is likely to be the same.
Indeed, a press release from Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office Wednesday warned that "I am concerned that (the new proposed bill) may follow the pattern of previous House bills which seek to either preempt state law or waive state water quality and Endangered Species Act requirements which could spur serious litigation and likely delay any action."
The likelihood of strong opposition cast Wednesday's event in a suspect light. Was it a sincere attempt to help California in a time of need or an unofficial reelection kickoff for Valadao, who is being heavily targeted by Democrats?
While Boehner's presence brought a great deal more media attention to California's water plight, any meaningful change in federal law or a federal-state partnership would have to get Senate buy-in, meaning Feinstein, who's long been a heavyweight in California water politics, not Boehner.
However, if freshman Valadao needed a boost to help loosen wallets before the mid-term elections this fall, Boehner would be a great leg up. Since Valadao, himself a dairy farmer, has made water a key issue, Wednesday's event would look to be a smooth political fit.
Meanwhile, California's reaction to the proposed bill pitched by Boehner, et al, was wary.
John Laird, secretary of the state's Natural Resources Agency, provided testimony in 2011 vehemently opposing Nunes' bill, H.R. 1837. The state was particularly upset by the portions of H.R. 1837 that would have set pumping levels at those agreed to in 1994 and suspension of the San Joaquin River restoration settlement, which he said would essentially toss out California water law and upend long held water rights.
The exact same measures are being discussed for this new bill, albeit on an emergency basis only.
In an email on Wednesday, Laird said that if this new bill proves sufficiently similar to the old H.R. 1837, the state would again stand in opposition.
"We are rarely forced to confront water allocations this low, salinity in the delta, and difficulty moving water during a crisis. Now is not the time to be divided -- now is the time to bring people together to find solutions," Laird said.