House drought bill emerges from committee markup

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 10, 2015 - A House bill aimed at helping California farmers cope with a four-year drought was favorably reported out of the Natural Resources Committee Thursday.

The drought relief bill - the Western Water and American Food Security Act (HR 2898), introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif. - emerged from full committee markup with only two amendments, both posed by California lawmakers.

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Rep. Jim Costa submitted an amendment, accepted by a bipartisan voice vote, which adds a section allowing the implementation of pilot projects to control invasive species in Sacramento River, San Joaquin River and their tributaries.

An amendment from Republican Tom McClintock made noncontroversial, technical changes to the bill.

The bill's central aim is to increase the amount of water being pumped from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers into California's agriculturally rich Central Valley. Currently, much of the water in the delta formed by the two rivers is dedicated to maintaining habitat for the Delta smelt and the Chinook salmon, two species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The House legislation would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complete a biological review of the Delta smelt population and modify the methodology it uses to calculate incidental take levels - that is, the amount of permitted “takings” (defined as harming, wounding or killing) of the smelt allowed under the ESA.

Existing water rights, some of which were put in place centuries ago, would not be affected by the bill. The federal government would also be required to complete feasibility studies for several water storage projects in California that have been “languishing in bureaucratic purgatory” for up to 10 years, noted supporters of the bill.

In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has taken issue with provisions in the House bill that she says violate environmental law and primarily benefit large agribusinesses in the state.

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.”

Boxer has called on Republicans to support her legislation - the Water in the 21st Century bill - which she says promotes water recycling, conservation, desalination and improved water storage and management.

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