Can Congress Fix the Drought?


California is experiencing a severe drought with water levels across the state far lower than average. (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)

It’s a saying you’ve probably heard quite a few times now amidst the coverage of California’s drought, but it’s worth reiterating – whisky’s for drinking, water’s for fighting. My guess is our elected representatives will probably appreciate a cocktail by the time Congress decides on a drought relief bill for the state.

There are currently two bills making their way through Congress to help the state contend with the relentless drought. One comes from House Representative David Valadao (R-King’s County), the other from five term California Senator and water policy juggernaut, Dianne Feinstein. The House approved Valadao’s bill the middle of July along a party line vote, and Feinstein introduced her legislation next week.

First, Senator Feinstein’s: Her bill calls for $1.3 billion to be spent over 10 years on a variety of water conservation initiatives, a sum much larger than the feds have spent towards drought relief in the past. The bulk of the funds – $600 million – are to be allocated for new dams and reservoirs. $200 million would be spent on recycled water projects, and $100 million would go towards research for desalination projects.

The bill leaves in place protections for the endangered species, making it so that potential new water transfers do not adversely impact wildlife populations. However, likely a sticking point for environmentalists will be that her legislation makes it so new dams would only have to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, rather than a vote by Congress.

Valadao’s bill – the Western Water and American Food Security Act – has far fewer protections for the state’s wildlife. It would replace the San Joaquin River’s Salmon and Habitat Restoration Plan with a much less ambitious version, and would allow for artificially spawned salmon and smelt to be counted in Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta fish tallies. His bill calls for feasibility studies of five separate water storage projects, and fines the California Bureau of Reclamation $20,000 a day for every deadline that is missed. President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.

Knowing full well the conflicting provisions in the two bills, legislators are likely setting their positions for a compromise measure to be decided in committee between officials from the House and the Senate. Feinstein is, of course, no stranger to such negotiations and has brokered deals between the state’s environmental and agricultural interests in the past. But with the state in such a dire environmental plight, the lack of water to go around has made dealings more difficult. This past December Feinstein saw a drought bill she sponsored scuttled; environmentalists were incensed that they were not included in the negotiations and so mounted a public awareness campaign to kill the legislation.

And just in case you were wondering about that upcoming El Niño that we’ve been hearing about, forecasters doubt that it will singlehandedly cure the drought facing the state. 2.5 times the normal rain fall is needed, and the previous El Niño brought in 47 inches of rain. A normal rainfall year is 23.5 inches.

Amidst this, an encouraging report on California’s water consumption recently came out – turns out we’re doing a good job of saving water! The state cut its water consumption by 27.3% this past June as compared to June of 2013. Officials attribute this to residents taking shorter showers and watering their lawns less.

So, it seems like Californians are doing their part and we’ll soon see if our elected officials can follow suit. As we watch developments in Congress, what say you on the upcoming water bills? Do either get it right? What changes would you make to them? Vote and comment below.

Senator Feinstein’s Drought Relief Bill
Towards the end of July, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation meant to help California grapple with the severe drought. Her bill calls for $1.3 billion in federal funding for drought relief. The bulk of the money, $600 million, would go towards funding new storage projects – dams and reservoirs. $200 million would go towards recycled water initiatives, and $100 million would be spent on research for desalination. The bill maintains safeguards for fish populations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but in what will likely cause concern among environmentalists, makes it so new dams need only the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, rather than a vote from Congress. Do you support Senator Feinstein’s proposal? Vote and comment here.

Representative Valadao’s Drought Relief Bill
Representative David Valadao has proposed a bill to address California’s severe drought. His measure calls for replacing the San Joaquin River’s Salmon and Habitat Restoration Plan with a much smaller version, as well as counting artificially spawned salmon and smelt in the fish tallies for the Delta. This would allow for more water to be transferred to Southern California agricultural interests. Additionally, his bill calls for the 5 studies of new water storage projects, and would fine the Bureau of Reclamation $20/day for missing deadlines. President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.

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