WASHINGTON — Carrying out his earlier threats of delay, Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.) blocked all legislation from moving through the Senate chamber Tuesday in an attempt to prevent major reform of California water policy from becoming law.
Seymour began a one-man filibuster by requesting that Senate clerks read the entire contents of a 396-page omnibus water package containing dozens of reclamation projects for 17 Western states.
The move, which bottled up legislation for more than six hours, was expected to be the first in a series of parliamentary tactics orchestrated by Seymour to withhold consideration of a House-passed water measure before the Senate recesses this week for the remainder of the 102nd Congress.
"We have now spent 18 hours nonstop trying to prevent this bill from coming to a vote," Seymour said Tuesday evening. "I am going to go as long as I can because this bill is an economic disaster for the state of California."
It was unclear late Tuesday whether Seymour's efforts will succeed.
The House set the stage for a showdown with California's junior senator shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday by passing a compromise measure on a voice vote that could reallocate millions of acre-feet of water generated by the federal Central Valley Project, primarily for the benefit of the environment and cities.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the Interior Committee, called the bill the "most sweeping reform of California water policy in a half century."
Miller said he was confident that the Senate would wait out Seymour's stalling tactics to approve the bill and send it to President Bush for his signature.
"I think for now Seymour is going to carry out the role of obstructionist because that is really the only role that is left for Central Valley farmers," Miller said. "Congress made a conscious decision on a bipartisan basis to change the Central Valley Project. The choice now is between change and no change."
But two prominent members of the Bush Administration--Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. and Agriculture Secretary Edward R. Madigan--have raised objections to the bill and may recommend a presidential veto.
Seymour, acting on behalf of the California agriculture community, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop the legislation. He called the House-Senate conference committee measure "a poison pill for California jobs that we will not swallow."
The most controversial part of the massive water legislation would drastically alter water deliveries from the Central Valley Project, which controls 20% of California's developed water through 20 dams and more than 500 miles of diversion canals, reservoirs, pumps and other facilities. The project supplies water for about one-third of the state's 9 million acres of irrigated farmland through a series of federally subsidized contracts signed 40 years ago.
The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, negotiated last weekend between House and Senate conferees, would make saving threatened fish and wildlife a top priority. It calls for devoting 800,000 acre-feet of water to meet the project's new environmental purposes and establishing a $50-million annual fund to finance fish and wildlife restoration activities.
The legislation would also enable urban water agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to purchase water through the Central Valley Project from willing sellers. Such transfers are prohibited under federal law.
Carl Boronkay, MWD general manager, predicted that the bill would provide large amounts of water to California cities.
"If managed properly, California has ample water supplies to take care of the reasonable needs of cities, farms and the environment for some time to come. Passage of this bill is a crucial element of good water supply management," Boronkay said.
Most of California's largest businesses also support water transfers, said James R. Harvey, chairman of Transamerica Corp. and a member of the California Business Roundtable.
"We think this is a major step forward," Harvey said. "There is lots of water. Let the free market determine where the water goes rather than some politician."
Agriculture lobbyists contend that the bill would destroy California family farms, particularly during years of prolonged drought. They cite a Department of Interior analysis of the legislation that found no Central Valley Project water would have been delivered to irrigators over the last three years.
"The Central Valley's existence is tied to water," said Phil Larson, a farmer in the Fresno County city of Kerman. "No water means no farms, no jobs and no future."
The legislation also would:
* End the practice of automatically renewing highly subsidized, fixed 40-year contracts for Central Valley irrigators. Current contractors would be guaranteed only one additional contract of 25 years.
* Replace fixed prices for water subsidies with a three-tier pricing system that discourages heavy volume use and encourages conservation.