Feinstein's new drought relief bill seeks water storage, targeted releases

By Stephen Davies

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2016 - A revised drought relief bill from a California lawmaker seeks to strike a balance between short-term needs and long-term goals.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., released the latest version of her legislation Wednesday, a 184-page bill dubbed the “California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act.”

Feinstein and House Republicans from California had a well-publicized disagreement late last year as the House and Senate haggled over the omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2016. Feinstein accused GOP leaders of implying she supported drought legislation that they tried to include in the omnibus. They fired back that it was her idea to use the omnibus to address drought relief. Feinstein issued a statement on Dec. 4 calling the incident “regrettable,” and House Republicans held a press conference a week later to blame Feinstein for the breakdown in negotiations.

The senator sent a signal to her House counterparts in her statement today.

“I recognize that any bill in the Republican-led House will be far more aggressive on the short-term operational provisions and downplay the long-term provisions,” she said. “But such a bill would never pass the Senate. What has become clear is that each region of the state and each stakeholder group has its own vested interest, and this makes consensus extraordinarily difficult.”

Asked who had participated in the negotiations, her office told Agri-Pulse, Many of the Northern California Democrats including (John) Garamendi and (Jim) Costa as well as some SoCal Dems. Several of the California House Republicans were involved in negotiations last year, which are reflected in this bill.”

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Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., were also noted contributors.

Feinstein's office said she hadn't met with the House Republicans who held the press conference since they held it, but this bill reflects the negotiations that occurred last year.”

One of those GOP-ers, Rep. David Valadao, had harsh words for the Feinstein bill.

While desalination, recycling, and complying with the ESA “are admirable goals in areas such as San Francisco, this legislation will not provide those suffering from the drought with the water supply they so desperately need,” he said.

He also took note of Feinstein's statement that the bill provisions would “help make the water delivery system more efficient during the drought, and do so without any mandated pumping levels.”
"Californians can no longer depend on federal and state bureaucrats to make decisions regarding water delivery,” Valadao said. “Mandated pumping levels are absolutely necessary to ensure a secure, reliable water supply to the areas most in need.”

Valadao nonetheless said he hopes the Senate passes Feinstein's bill so that the House and Senate can hash out differences in a conference committee. Last summer, the House passed his bill, H.R. 2898, which calls for more pumping and reservoir storage.

Feinstein's bill would spend $1.3 billion on specific long-term projects “while making targeted, temporary changes to water operations that only last for the length of the drought or two years, whichever is longer, and which do not violate environmental laws,” a bill summary said.

The legislation includes provisions requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to use “real-time” monitoring to track the presence of the threatened Delta smelt and “determine how the Central Valley Project and State Water Project may be operated more efficiently to maximize fish and water supply benefits.”

FWS issued a Biological Opinion (BiOp) in December 2008 on the effect of the water projects' operations on the smelt; the National Marine Fisheries Service followed six months later with its own BiOp addressing the projects' effects on five listed species, including chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead. In both documents, the agencies called on water managers to limit pumping and use releases from reservoirs to benefit the listed species, which has reduced the amount of water available for public use.

But Feinstein said the BiOps “don't reflect the most recent science. More water could safely be pumped during high-rainfall periods like winter storms, while continuing to protect fish, if we were to employ regular monitoring of water turbidity and locations of fish.”

Not using this updated science “means that extra water from high river flows - as we're seeing during the current El Niño - is flowing into the ocean, water that could instead be safely pumped and stored for later use,” she said.

The bill promotes desalination as a partial solution. It would authorize $50 million for feasibility and design of desalination projects, and $50 million for research, “such as improving existing reverse osmosis and membrane technology, reducing the environmental effects of seawater desalination and developing next-generation technologies to reduce the cost of desalination,” according to a summary of the bill.

Given the consensus that droughts will grow more severe and the storms that follow more devastating, storing water during wet years for use in dry years is vital,” the summary said. The bill authorizes $600 million for water storage projects, “which may include both federal projects (Shasta) and non-federal projects (Sites, Temperance Flat, Los Vaqueros).”

Feinstein said her bill was the product of two years of work and includes provisions from both Republicans and Democrats. Her website includes endorsements of the bill from Garamendi, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, Ducks Unlimited, Redwood City, and about a dozen water districts and other local agencies.

Glenn-Colusa President Donald Bransford said the district “particularly appreciate(s) that your proposal authorizes new funding and financing opportunities to support needed surface water storage projects, like the Sites Project. In a year like 2015, if Sites were in place, it is estimated there would have been an extra 400,000 acre feet of water in storage north of the Delta to meet the water needs of agriculture and our cities, as well help meet the Central Valley Project obligations for environmental water for fish and waterfowl.”

The Sites Reservoir, which would be built on the western side of the Sacramento Valley, would store 1.8 million acre-feet of water.

The endorsement letters also praised a proposal to create a loan-guarantee program through the Reclamation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (RIFIA).

The bill would authorize $200 million for RIFIA, which would allow water districts and municipalities to leverage loans and loan guarantees for water projects, reducing loan repayment costs by as much as 25 percent, the bill summary said. 

The bill also would authorize $150 million in increased funding for the Bureau of Reclamation's WaterSMART program, “to help finance water reclamation and reuse projects as well as water efficiency initiatives,” the summary said.

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In addition, the bill would allow “rural and disadvantaged communities with fewer than 60,000 residents to apply for grants through the Bureau of Reclamation to help stabilize their water supplies,” the bill summary said. “Funds can be used for both short-term solutions such as emergency bottled water supplies as well as long-term solutions such as water treatment facilities, wells and connecting homes to centralized water distribution systems.”

The bill would prioritize State Revolving Funds for communities most at risk of running out of water. “By directing funds to these communities most at risk, the bill provides the state with the tools necessary to provide water for public health and safety and to increase drought resiliency,” the summary said.

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