The Biden administration is assuring lawmakers that it's working to provide short-term emergency relief to the drought-stricken West even as farm and water groups continue to push for new, innovative solutions and some relaxation of environmental rules that limit access to irrigation water. 

More than 90% of the Southwest and California is currently experiencing drought, with nearly 40% of the region in exceptional drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

“The scale and intensity of this drought is really historic,” Elizabeth Klein, a senior counselor to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland who is working across that department on drought-related concerns, told a House Natural Resources subcommittee on Tuesday. 

She said the multi-agency National Drought Resilience Partnership, co-led by the Interior and Agriculture departments, will “identify both short-term emergency relief but also longer-term resilience strategies” with an eye toward “projects that support agriculture, cities, tribes and the environment.”

The sometimes conflicting demands of those constituencies have led to tensions over scarce water supplies, particularly in the Klamath Basin along the inland California-Oregon border.  State and federal water projects have attempted to balance agricultural water needs and Endangered Species Act protections for certain fish while honoring the Yoruk Tribe’s cultural and economic reliance on the ecosystem. The tribe canceled its 2021 commercial fishing season for the fifth consecutive year in an effort to preserve salmon runs.

Amy Cordalis, a member of the tribe and its legal counsel, said the projects have failed, destroying salmon habitat and reducing stream flow. The management regime, she said, prioritizes “agricultural diversions over the needs of fish and ecosystem.” Any legislative drought relief package must include “equitable funding to help tribal commercial fishermen and their families survive the drought,” she added.

But Klamath Basin farmers also are suffering and Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, who also spoke for the Klamath Water Users Association, said “water management in the West is becoming too inflexible,” and he offered as evidence the focus on specific fish species, which can lead to less water flowing to downstream farmers, as an example.

He said the current system “does not work for farms or waterfowl” and may not have benefited the fish. He called for a new basin-wide agreement, without more litigation that can bog down the process.  

Oregon Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz acknowledged the urgency of finding solutions. As people debate who gets diminishing supplies, “the allocation of water to in-stream flows will pit tribe against tribe, fish against fish, fish against agriculture, communities against communities.” He pressed Klein for specifics on how the federal government will help.

Klein emphasized the need for strong climate research and to honor the government’s trust and treaty obligations with tribes but said the Drought Relief Working Group she’s a part of will be reaching out broadly across government entities and to affected communities. She said “the toll that this will take on individual families all across the country is quite serious.”

California Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, who operates an almond farm in the central San Joaquin Valley, estimated that 700,000 acres of farmland in the state would go fallow this year. He said farmers who can are buying water on the spot market. But others are counting on the California State Water Resources Control Board to release water from Lake Shasta, which is very low and must comply with temperature requirements to protect salmon before allowing water to flow downstream for agricultural irrigation. If that doesn’t happen “certainly there's going to be bankruptcy and farm workers will be out of jobs," he said. 

“We want to find ways to reach out to the communities that are suffering,” Klein said.

Drought also raises concerns about the wildfire season, which brought the question of forest management to the hearing. Idaho state forester Craig Foss said “managed forests are healthy forests,” and reiterated the concern that litigation can slow progress on plans that take a long time to develop and need to be implemented in a timely manner. He said several bills before Congress could help develop forest resiliency for both drought and wildfire, including the Trillion Trees Act, the Rural Forest Markets Act, and the National Prescribed Fire Act.

Costa said bipartisan support is needed for funding better forest management.

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Although drought conditions are variable across the West, several observers have said parts of California are likely heading into a season that will be the driest since the late 1970s.

“Our 20th century infrastructure is colliding with the reality of our 21st century climate crisis,” said Joaquin Esquivel, who chairs the California Water Resources Control Board. He said the old ways of managing water “often unthinkingly perpetuate a less enlightened past” in which certain communities suffered disproportionately.

Michael Markus, general manager for the Orange County Water District, offered several ways that water managers could leverage investments in existing technologies and infrastructures. For example, he shared the success of the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) that was constructed with the Orange County Sanitation District in 2008 to create a locally controlled source of water that is independent of water imported from the Delta and Colorado River.

“The GWRS takes treated wastewater from the Orange County Sanitation District that otherwise would be discharged into the Pacific Ocean. We use a three-step advanced purification process that consists of microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. This purification process produces high-quality water that exceeds state and federal drinking water standards. It protects the groundwater basin from seawater intrusion and overdraft,” he noted in his written testimony.

In addition, he called for maximizing new water supplies through enhanced stormwater capture, additional surface storage, desalinization projects, innovative financing and more.

“OCWD believes that the best defense to the drought is a strong offense of developing new water supplies to serve our constituents,” Markus said.

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