The Senate, in late-night action Friday, passed a bill giving the Central Utah Water Project an additional $894 million and sent the measure back to the House where its future was cloudy.
The Senate stripped reclamation reform language from the omnibus water projects bill containing CUP. The language had been inserted by the House and demanded by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Water and Power subcommittee. Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., threatened to block the entire bill if the reclamation reform provisions were not dropped.There was little disagreement over the details of CUP itself, but the omnibus bill contained provisions limiting the acres of a single farm that could be irrigated by water from a federal reclamation project.
Miller has insisted on stringent reform of federal water law, restricting to 640 acres the size of farming units that could receive subsidized federal water.
Wilson and other senators from western farming states object to tight limits that might bar many multifamily farms from receiving water at any price.
In the face of Wilson's threat to block the bill if the House reinserts the reclamation reform language, Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Subcommittee, said the measure was likely to fail.
Miller has so far refused to agree to specific language, though he has said he would accept "reasonable" water limits.
Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who has worked around the clock for much of the week negotiating a CUP compromise, said he did not have much hope that the bill would get through the House in its stripped form.
He said that not only Wilson but other western senators threatened to block reclamation reform.
"I'll be surprised if Miller lets it go through this way, but I always have hope," Garn added.
In the House, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, indicated Friday he would try to hold Miller to a promise earlier in the year not to kill CUP over reclamation reform.
Sen. Jim McClure, R-Idaho, called the bill the Senate passed "our very best effort - probably this is it."
Partisans of CUP were frazzled Friday and privately calling Miller a "real jerk" and Wilson "unreasonable."
The $894 million reauthorization of CUP was lumped in with the catchall bill consisting of other projects and reclamation reform in order to get it to the Senate floor in the waning hours of the session.
With Congress facing an immense amount of work to rewrite the budget and multiple appropriations bills in the next 24 hours, any lengthy talking would shelve the water bill for the year. Failure this session could mean Congress next year would not extend the project's funding at all. If that happened, water users would be faced with finishing the project themselves, and the U.S. would not be entitled to repayment of most of the $1.2 billion already spent on CUP.
In that case, the water users would probably have to negotiate to buy the unfinished project from the federal government in order to complete the municipal and industrial portion. More than $200 million in environmental mitigation work would face cancellation. Irrigation provisions may also be canceled.