Updated: House bill brings new attention to drought issues


Issue Date: December 10, 2014
By Dave Kranz

A vote in the U.S. House of Representatives this week renewed discussion of California drought relief in Washington, D.C., and set the stage for the likelihood of additional legislation in the new Congress next year.

Legislation known as the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 was introduced in the House last week by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and cosponsored initially by six other California representatives: Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield; Ken Calvert, R-Corona; Jim Costa, D-Fresno; Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale; Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove; and Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. The full House passed the bill on Tuesday.

The representatives said they introduced the bill after negotiations with the Senate on a long-term drought-relief package ended last month.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who authored a Senate drought bill that passed in May, had been involved in discussions with California House members in efforts to reconcile her bill with earlier legislation adopted by the House. On Nov. 20, Feinstein announced the negotiations had been suspended, saying it had become clear to her that participants in the talks would be "unable to present an agreed-upon proposal before Congress adjourns this year."

The sponsors of the Emergency Drought Relief Act said their bill contained short-term provisions that had been agreed upon in the negotiations on the long-term legislation, and that Congress needed to act immediately.

"I will not let this year end without exhausting every possible option to bring relief to the Central Valley," Valadao said.

The House vote of 230-182 sent the bill to the Senate, but political observers said the Senate appeared unlikely to act on the measure—leaving the question of California drought relief to the new, Republican-led Congress that will be sworn in next year.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger welcomed introduction and passage of the House bill, saying it kept the impact of the California drought "front and center" in the nation's capital.

"We hope this legislation prompts continued discussions in Congress and elsewhere, about what the federal government can and should do to make our water system work more efficiently for the benefit of people, the environment and the economy," Wenger said.

The House bill would direct federal water and fisheries agencies to act within the parameters of existing laws and regulations to maximize the ability to capture high water flows during storms. Its provisions would remain in effect until the end of Gov. Jerry Brown's existing drought proclamation or the end of the next water year, Sept. 30, 2016.

Wenger noted that even during drought years such as those California has experienced, there are strong storms that generate significant runoff.

"Too often during the past three years, that runoff has been allowed to flow unabated to the ocean," he said. "Had we been able to store more of that runoff, we could have eased at least some of the severe water shortages our farms and communities face today."

December and January typically represent the wettest months of the California rainy season, the bill's supporters noted, and both the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project need to be allowed to capture water when it becomes available.

In a statement issued prior to the House vote, McCarthy, who serves as House majority leader, referred to a report published last week by the American Geophysical Union, which used tree-ring studies to estimate the last three years have been the driest period California has experienced in at least 1,200 years. McCarthy said government policies have worsened the impacts of the drought.

"Ill-conceived policies have continued to prioritize the well-being of fish above people, meaning precious water is released into the ocean rather than directed to our local communities in need," he said.

Costa said the provisions in the House bill would provide "one more tool to bring relief to the San Joaquin Valley," which he said "has suffered far too long because of our broken water system," while Nunes pointed to the cities, towns, rural homes, schools and churches that are "running dry."

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.