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Federal drought legislation passes overwhelmingly

Issue Date: December 14, 2016
By Christine Souza

Welcomed by farm and water leaders as a balanced solution, significant federal legislation authorizing $558 million worth of drought-relief actions for California heads to the president after passage in Congress.

The bipartisan drought legislation, part of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, or WIIN, invests in California water storage and desalination projects, and includes a number of short-term provisions intended to increase flexibility of the state's water system in response to drought. The larger, $10 billion bill to which the drought provisions were attached includes funding for improving drinking-water safety, such as to address the problem with lead in Flint, Mich.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger thanked the drought bill's sponsors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and other members of the California delegation for their patience and persistence in moving the bill to passage.

"Bipartisan language in the bill addresses the chronic water shortages that have plagued California for a generation," Wenger said, noting that California faces a potential sixth consecutive drought year. "This bill is being described as a victory for farmers, but it's really a victory for balance in managing a vital resource. Farmers depend on a healthy environment and recognize the need to reevaluate and enhance our water system to benefit fish and people alike."

Erin Huston, a CFBF federal policy consultant, said the legislation provides benefits to many different regions of the country, and that it has a good chance of being signed.

Approved by a 78- 21 vote in the Senate late last week after a 360-61 vote in the House, the final water package received bipartisan support.

McCarthy described the California drought language as "the most significant California water reforms in 25 years."

The language includes both short-term and long-term provisions by Feinstein and McCarthy to address the ongoing drought. The final bill, Feinstein said, represents years of negotiations to reach a compromise to benefit farms and other water users, while still protecting the environment.

"The long-term provisions are vital for California to not become a desert state," she said. "We absolutely must hold water from wet years for use in dry years, and this bill will help accomplish that by investing more than $500 million in projects."

She said the bill directs $30 million to desalination projects, $150 million to water recycling and water conservation projects, $335 million to groundwater and surface storage projects, and $43 million to projects that benefit fish and wildlife.

The short-term provisions include daily monitoring of fish near water-project pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; allow water agencies to capture more water during winter storms; require the agencies to maximize water supplies consistent with law; require agencies to explain when they pump less than allowed under biological opinions intended to benefit protected fish; create incentives for water transfers during critical periods; and other actions.

The California drought provisions were added to the WIIN bill early last week. The language brought immediate opposition from some Democrats, including retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who described it as a way to undermine the Endangered Species Act and protections for salmon and delta smelt.

Feinstein said the bill contains "strong, comprehensive" language stating its provisions must be implemented under terms consistent with the ESA and "relevant biological opinions."

Fresno County farmer Dan Errotabere, who farms in the Westlands Water District, said the Feinstein/McCarthy drought language resulted from an evolving, long-term effort.

"The bill provides a lot of flexibility in the system and gives a little bit more direction on how the project ought to be managed, not only with the environment in mind, but the stakeholders who receive the water in mind. I think this is a positive move," Errotabere said.

"The health of the fish populations has been decimated by not only the drought, but the predation of invasive species and urban development around the delta; these are components of a problem that, unless we take a holistic look, we are not going to get past," he said. "The simple mantra of just throwing more water out to the ocean hasn't worked. We've done that for 20 years."

Association of California Water Agencies Executive Director Timothy Quinn said the overall bill contains key provisions that authorize numerous projects in California, including restoration of the Los Angeles River, Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea.

"The drought language included in the bill reflects compromises that will improve water supplies for all Californians," Quinn said. "We need a partnership with the federal government that will move us closer to achieving the coequal goals, not further away."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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