Democratic senators introduce bill to address growing drought problem

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2014 - Four senators introduced legislation (S. 2016) Tuesday to authorize $300 million in emergency funds for drought-relief projects to maximize water supplies for farmers and other consumers in California and Oregon.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced the bill, which includes a range of provisions that require federal agencies to use existing powers to maximize water supplies, reduce project review times, and ensure water is directed to users whose need is greatest. The bill would not waive any federal or state laws.

The senators said the drought, which could be worse than the historic dry conditions of 1976 and 1977, threatens California's $44.7 billion agriculture sector. Safe drinking water also is in danger of running out in at least 10 California communities.

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“This drought has the potential to devastate Western states, especially California, and Congress and the president must take swift action,” Feinstein said. The senator said the bill would provide operational flexibility to increase water supplies and primes federal agencies to make the best use of any additional rain. “With so little water available, we must focus on streamlining federal programs and provide what assistance we can to those farmers and communities being hit the hardest,” Feinstein said.

The bill would require the Interior and Commerce Departments to cooperate with a California Water Resources Board plan to keep the Delta Cross Channel Gates open as long as possible to allow more water to be delivered without endangering migrating salmon. This action is expected to save thousands of acre feet of water from upstream reservoirs each month this spring. It further would mandate that federal agencies use flexibility under existing law to maximize water supplies using Delta pumping.

The Senate bill introduction comes after the House on Feb. 5 approved its own drought-relief legislation (H.R. 3964), on a mostly party-line vote of 229-191. The bill would repeal some of California's authority over its Central Valley, rolling back the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act in vital water areas.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said their bill would incorporate three main actions:

  • Turning on the Delta pumps this year and next year to capture future rain events.
  • Ending restoration flows in the San Joaquin River for this year and next year in order to stop wasting water.
  • Establishing a bipartisan, emergency joint committee from the House and Senate to devise a long-term legislative solution.

The House bill has reignited age-old and fierce California fights over water distribution. Many Democrats claim the bill would override state laws and protections, while mandating that certain water interests in the state take priority over others.

Valadao and Nunes have said current California laws impose overly costly regulations that deprive people and industry of water in favor of fish.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called the House bill “a solution to California's man-made water problems,” implicitly blaming Democrat-favored regulatory programs for California's water crisis.

On the Senate bill, McCarthy said, “Unfortunately, this proposal disappointingly focuses mainly on treating the symptoms of fallowed fields and dry spigots instead of taking steps toward curing the root of the problem so that our communities can receive more water.” McCarthy said the House-passed bill would “solve our communities' ability to capture and store the water that they have contracted and paid for.”

In support of the Senate bill, Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, said, “If enacted these changes would provide assistance to water users and our farmers who face critical shortages and as such Western Growers supports passage of this legislation in the Senate.”

“As we await congressional action, we urge the Obama administration to act with all due speed and exercise all discretion to facilitate water flow and transfer for the remainder of the year as precipitation falls,” Nassif said.  

The administration did announce recently that it would provide $20 million to aid California farmers struggling through the historic drought.

Further, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency directing state officials to take necessary actions to combat serious drought conditions as farmers there are dealing with record low levels of rainfall. The declaration said the state's water supplies have dropped to alarming levels with snowpack in California's mountains at about 20 percent of the normal average, low water reservoir levels, and reduced surface water flows. In addition to the drought, several wildfires have continued to rage across various parts of the state.

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