WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 - The campaign to pass western water legislation got a boost Tuesday from Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who announced he would offer a bill to accompany S. 2533, which was introduced Feb. 10 by his fellow Californian and Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

His bill, which Garamendi spokesman Dante Atkins said is substantially the same as Feinstein’s, may be dropped this week in the GOP-controlled House, where chances of passage are slim.

Garamendi endorsed Feinstein’s bill when it was introduced, saying she “has been committed to finding a legislative solution to California’s water challenges that treats all stakeholders fairly while also staying true to our nation’s landmark environmental laws. This bill fits that very high standard.”

Feinstein’s bill was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, whose chairman, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have been preoccupied recently with getting an energy bill passed. A committee spokesman would say only that Murkowski is “committed to working with her colleagues on a west-wide drought bill. As far as timing, we don’t have anything scheduled yet.”

Time is the enemy this year: With party conventions this summer, there are fewer legislative days than usual to accomplish something in the Senate – 103 until Election Day, but really only 64 when you remove Mondays and Fridays, when lawmakers are usually still back home or traveling.

The desire is there, however. “There is an interest and need in reforming and modernizing the water systems across the western United States,” which has been suffering from severe drought for years, said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs at Western Growers, most of whose members are in California. Nuxoll would like to see the Energy and Natural Resources Committee tackle water issues after it’s done with the energy bill.

“There is momentum, there is energy,” he said. “It’s time to do something about it.”

Both Western Growers and the California Farm Bureau Federation released statements after Feinstein introduced her bill. “Senate action on this legislation is urgently needed in order to create an opportunity for compromise legislation to be negotiated with the House of Representatives,” Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif said Feb. 16. “Mother Nature is providing us with the gift of water this year, but we know this drought won’t be broken with one good year of precipitation, especially when our policies allow too much of that water to flow out to sea.”

And CFBF President Paul Wenger said the Senate "must pass this bill so it can advance to a conference committee with the drought bill already passed by the House of Representatives.”

That bill, sponsored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., cleared the House 245-176 last July. The bill calls for mandated pumping levels – moving water from the Sacramento River delta south to the agriculturally rich Central Valley – which Valadao said “are absolutely necessary to ensure a secure, reliable water supply to the areas most in need.” At the same time, those provisions are deal-killers for Senate Democrats.

“This bill won’t be everything for everyone — candidly, that’s not possible with California water policy,” Feinstein said.

Her bill 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.”

The senator said that Biological Opinions issued by FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2008 and 2009 restrict pumping more severely than necessary to protect threatened and endangered fish species.

“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,” Feinstein said.

Her bill also would provide $1.3 billion for long-term storage, desalination, and recycling efforts, provisions that Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., pointed to while stopping short of a full endorsement. He urged swift Senate passage so negotiations could take place.

And a coalition of Central Valley water agencies that have challenged endangered species protections in the BiOps in the past called the introduction of Feinstein’s bill “a positive step.”

“The legislation advances efforts to provide common-sense congressional direction on the application of the Endangered Species Act to the operations of the (Central Valley Project) and (State Water Project) and a roadmap for development of new water supplies to meet the water supply needs in California and other regions of the west,” said the statement, issued by Westlands Water District, the South Valley Water Association, Kern County Water Agency, Friant Water Authority, Friant North Authority, SJR Exchange Contractors, and Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority. For more on the Feinstein bill, including statements and letters, click here.


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