Trying to 'Stop the Bleeding' from Environmental Overreach

Central California Republicans -- and farmers across the state -- won a small victory last night in a House committee in a battle that has seen scores of communities devastated by environmental regulatory overreach.

The Delta smelt is a tiny fish that lives is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley River Delta. In response to the fish's threatened status, influenced by its sensitivity to environmental conditions and the large-scale pumping operations necessary to send water south, a 2007 court order citing the Endangered Species Act severely cut back water deliveries through the agricultural Central Valley.

Legislation, lawsuits and regulation whipped up a perfect storm to stop much of the water from reaching millions of Californians.

"So the people that had the water ended up losing the water thanks to government and government regulations," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told me Thursday, taking a break in his office after the mark-up of his bill, the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act.

"And so what we're doing, this bill, is we're basically fixing that problem," he said, by going back to the 1994 bipartisan Bay-Delta Accord. "We're going back and we're saying, let's give the people back their state water rights."

Nunes, a 38-year-old, five-term congressman, has long been pegged as an up-and-comer in the Republican Party. He already holds two choice committee seats, on Ways and Means and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. His office is tucked next to Speaker John Boehner's on the first floor of the Longworth House office building.

The water crisis back home in his district has been a key priority for Nunes, who saw the region's problems only multiply under Nancy Pelosi's House.

"They actually passed a couple pieces of legislation that made it much worse," he said. "They took a quarter million acre feet away there, which devastated a lot of my district."

That's why, he said, the Valley's crisis is called "the manmade drought or the Congress-created drought."

"Because it was laws passed over time that were followed by lawsuits that took the water away," Nunes said.

The result of this regulation and decreased water supplies has been crippling in a region where agriculture accounts for $26 billion in total sales and 38 percent of the area's jobs. More than half of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts hail from California.