House Republicans introduce new drought relief bill

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 25, 2015 - House Republicans today introduced a bill that they say would rebalance the water needs of drought-plagued California between protected fish species and the farm communities and cities and towns that are running dry.

GOP aides say much of the framework for the bill - the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015 - was constructed following months of “collaboration” with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who in the past has fought previous Republican legislation on the grounds that it would weaken protections under the Endangered Species Act and would primarily benefit large agribusinesses in the state. In an e-mailed statement, Feinstein said the bill includes “some useful provisions to increase the flexibility of water delivery.” However, she said there were also provisions that would violate environmental law - which she said she cannot support.

“I continue to believe we need a comprehensive approach with both short- and long-term solutions to include increased flexibility as well as desalination, water storage and water recycling,” Feinstein said. “This is an incredibly complex issue, and I will continue to work with all sides to come up with workable solutions.”

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California's other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, derided the bill as more of “the same-old, same-old” and predicted it will “only reignite the water wars.” She called on Republicans to support legislation that she has sponsored, the Water in the 21st Century bill, which she said promotes water recycling, conservation, desalination and improved water storage and management.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., introduced the legislation, which is supported by the entire California Republican delegation, which includes Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

“The tragedy of the current drought is no longer isolated to California's Central Valley, and its response must include tangible solutions that provide us the opportunity to pursue the California dream,” McCarthy said in a statement. “Today is an important step to helping restore the water our communities desperately need by more fully utilizing the most sophisticated water system in the world to quench the robust economic opportunity California families, farmers, workers and businesses all need.”

An overview of the bill released by Republican aides asserts that at present, “vast quantities” of water is being dedicated to protected species of fish, “which is done at a great cost to entire communities … while the condition of the fish has not measurably improved.”

“The human costs to continue these regulatory practices are shockingly clear: They exacerbate high unemployment and reduced quality of life, especially in disadvantaged communities; threaten our nation's food security; and place undue burdens on the environment that so many Californians rely on. Yet the federal water administrators cannot actually quantify factual beneficial effects to listed fish from today's policies.”

One of the main goals of the bill, the aides said, is to increase the amount of water being pumped south into California's agriculturally rich Central Valley from the delta formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers following heavy storms and allow more of the water to be captured in reservoirs for future use. Currently much of the water is dedicated to maintaining habitat for species such as the Delta smelt and Chinook salmon and eventually flows out into the Pacific Ocean.

The bill would require regulators to integrate new science developed since the biological opinions on the status of the fish were issued in 2008 and 2009 for several state water projects then under consideration. The GOP aides say the new science and advanced monitoring techniques may result in higher fish counts than previously thought.

Additionally, the legislation includes provisions that would preserve existing water rights, some of which were put in place a century ago or more and many critics say need to be modernized.

“We don't want to ignite a water war,” one GOP aide said at today's briefing.

The overview notes that the bill also takes a long-term approach to help California and other Western states deal with drought by requiring the federal government to complete consideration of feasibility studies for several water storage projects in California that have been “languishing in bureaucratic purgatory” for up to 10 years.

The measure should pass the House but the Republican aides said at least six Democrats need to join the Republican majority in the Senate to get the bill through. They did not specify what if any concessions were made to elicit Democratic support.

California, the nation's biggest agricultural producer, is now in the fourth year of a drought that's said to be the worst to hit the region in more than a thousand years. The dry conditions are threatening almost $50 billion in agriculture production from more than 75,000 farms and ranches in the state, which grows about half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the U.S.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, which represents fresh produce producers in California, Arizona and Colorado, issued a statement in support of the new bill.

 “The House water supply legislation offered today appropriately focuses on using the infrastructure we have now in a more balanced way to protect California's economy and endangered species, and places needed emphasis on creating new water infrastructure to prepare our state for a changing climate. The legislation offers similar common sense measures for drought-stricken states throughout the West. We applaud House Members who have drafted the bill and we encourage other members of the House to engage on this legislation and push forward a Western drought relief bill as swiftly as possible.
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“Obviously, legislation needs to advance in the Senate as well and we strongly encourage senators from drought-impacted Western states to likewise take up and move drought legislation.
 
“For too many years, predating the current drought, we have pleaded for Congress to enact bipartisan solutions that will restore reasonable surface water supplies to farms and communities in Central and Southern California, and to bring needed storage projects throughout the West closer to reality. Our members cannot withstand more partisan fighting that results in nothing being done. We hope today marks a truly new beginning.”

 

This story was updated at 7:25 p.m.)

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