Commentary: Congress needs to create compromise drought bill
By Erin Huston
Drought continues to take a toll on California and the West, reflected in dwindling reservoirs such as New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River, above. A coalition of agricultural and water organizations has urged Congress to craft compromise legislation that would help the West deal with water shortages.
There is an opportunity before us that should not be put to waste: the prospect of federal drought legislation that would provide California both short-term relief and better policies in the long term.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing not long ago, highlighting California and Western drought. The committee spent its time learning about the great economic and social devastation ongoing drought has created for California, and discussed ways the federal government can assist California and the entire West with drought response, preparedness and resiliency.
Despite California's efforts to cope with the drought, water shortages continue to significantly impact the state's economy, its people and its environment. Legislation is desperately needed to provide relief in the short term, and also to look proactively forward to insulate our state from future droughts. California needs a greater level of water supply certainty and reliability in the long term.
The House of Representatives approved H.R. 2898, the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015 by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, back in July. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has also introduced S. 1894, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015. Both H.R. 2898 and S. 1984 are intended to address counterproductive regulatory practices and to expedite new water storage projects, and both measures would facilitate the use of water management tools such as voluntary transfers.
Although the House and Senate bills take sometimes starkly different approaches to achieving their common goals, these differences should not be irreconcilable for members of Congress if there is a commitment to work together to find a compromise that brings effective relief.
Farm Bureau is on record supporting both bills and appreciates the legislative efforts in both congressional chambers to address California's dire water situation. Other bills have been introduced to concentrate on additional areas of the West that have suffered from drought. But multiple, competing bills that have only been approved by one chamber ultimately will be of no help.
People throughout the region are counting on Congress to ensure that Western water users have every tool available to survive and recover from drought. That's why it is essential for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to bring ideas from the various bills together in a single, effective compromise bill that can be signed into law before the end of the year.
Farm Bureau joined with a regional coalition of more than 100 organizations, comprised of national and regional organizations and groups from California and 11 other states, to urge the Senate committee to create that type of compromise legislation.
Such a bill should provide federal agencies with more flexibility under existing environmental laws to encourage a more cooperative approach toward achieving water goals. The coalition letter encouraged legislation that shifts regulation of water resources "away from the current adversarial structure that regards agriculture as a harmful activity that must be minimized in order to maximize environmental benefits."
Cooperation and innovation will produce better results for both agriculture and the environment. The coalition recognizes that such an approach will also promote the use of new technology in water management. Real-time monitoring and data collection can be used to align water supply operations more closely with actual fishery and environmental needs.
The coalition stressed the need for investment—and reinvestment—in Western water infrastructure, including additional storage. There's no question that existing water infrastructure in California and the West is aging and needs to be rehabilitated. New water storage will help the West adapt to changing water conditions and to develop useable, sustainable supplies.
If we fail to improve infrastructure and expand supplies, the coalition recognizes that the West faces more conflict as pressure builds to "solve" urban and environmental problems by redirecting water away from farms and ranches. That, in turn, means more acreage idled, continued high rural unemployment rates and continued harm to rural communities and to the customers who depend on our agricultural production.
The coalition also recommended the streamlining of permitting processes to make water resources investment more attractive and affordable for regional, state and local entities. The federal government can be a partner in solving Western water problems by using financing mechanisms that have very low cost to the Treasury.
Congress has work to do on drought relief, and those of us involved in agriculture have work to do, also.
The dozens of farm, ranch and water organizations that signed the coalition letter have pledged to assist Congress in any way that leads to a unified legislative response to the drought crisis. But it's also essential for elected representatives to hear from individual farmers and ranchers about the important role federal legislation can play in drought relief and water certainty for California.
Please take each and every opportunity possible to underline the seriousness of the drought and water shortages, by reminding those who represent us about the importance of passing effective, compromise drought legislation this year. Let's not waste this chance.
(Erin Huston is a federal policy consultant for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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