BAKERSFIELD (AP) — House Speaker John Boehner visited a dusty California field on Wednesday, joining Central Valley Republicans to announce an emergency drought-relief bill to help farmers through what is certain to be a devastating year.
If passed, the bill that's already stirring controversy would temporarily halt restoration of the San Joaquin River designed to bring back the historic salmon flow, among other measures. Farmers want that water diverted to their crops.
Standing on the field just outside of Bakersfield, Boehner said that where he's from in Ohio, the logic applied in California regarding water policy would cause people to shake their heads.
"How you can favor fish over people is something people in my part of the world would never understand," Boehner said.
Without the emergency legislation, thousands of farmworkers will be unemployed, he said.
The bill is expected to be introduced in two weeks. It calls for allowing farmers to pump from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as water permits and forms a House-Senate committee to tackle water troubles.
Boehner was joined by three Republican colleagues: Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Rep. David Valadao of Hanford. The announcement followed Gov. Jerry Brown's declaration on Friday that California is suffering from a drought.
Valadao said Boehner's visit draws the nation's attention to California's dry weather. In turn, each lawmaker railed on Senate Democrats for failing to negotiate with them. In a statement, Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein rejected the claim of inaction.
Restoration of the San Joaquin River has caused fierce battles spanning years that have pitted farmers in need of irrigation water against groups that wish to bring the salmon runs back to historic levels.
"Salmon, and families (who) depend on them, are the ones we need to act to save now," John McManus, executive director of Golden Gate Salmon Association, said in a statement. "Salmon are dying in the drought-stricken Central Valley rivers and soon that will translate into lost jobs on the coast and inland waterways."
As the nation's leading farming state, California could be in its worst dry spell in a century, unless significant rain falls within the next two months. The parched weather could also wreak havoc during California's notorious wildfire season.
The San Joaquin River starts in the Sierra Nevada east of Fresno and collects at the Friant Dam into Millerton Lake.
It flows a few miles after the dam but dries up before reaching the Pacific Ocean. The river resumes downstream with water from the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers, which each have salmon population. The river's restoration is estimated to cost $1 billion in federal funds.
Among the difficulties, some former river bottom has subsided from pumping, and engineers will need to find ways to send the water uphill along its previous route. Farmland may end up flooding.
Farmer Larry Starrh, who opened up his field to the congressional delegation, said the drought has caused his family to make the difficult decision to lay fallow 1,000 acres covered with producing almond trees and leave another 2,000 across of land unused.
"Water is a weapon," Starrh said as his voice shook with emotion. "Water is a hostage. Our water system is battered and broken. It's been hijacked by unreasonableness, and we need help."