May 22 2014

Senate Passes Drought Relief Bill

Bill passes by unanimous consent; next step is negotiation with House of Representatives

Washington—The Senate this evening passed by unanimous consent the Emergency Drought Relief Act, a bill to provide federal and state water agencies with additional flexibility to deliver water where it is most needed during California’s historic drought. The legislation, sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both D-Calif.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), must now be reconciled with a separate bill passed by the House of Representatives.

Other cosponsors of the bill include Senators Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Senator Feinstein released the following statement after the bill was agreed to:

“The drought in California is devastating and shows no signs of letting up. Snowpack is at 6 percent of its normal level and the state’s largest reservoirs are at or below half capacity. Congress must take immediate action to help alleviate the suffering of farmers, workers, businesses and communities throughout the state.

“Getting this bill passed was a true team effort. In particular I am thankful to Senator Boxer, a true champion for California. Nevada Senators Reid and Heller were passionate advocates for increasing water levels at Lake Mead, which is so important for the health and economy of the Colorado River Basin. And Senator Murkowski, ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, displayed true bipartisanship in working across the aisle to address this disaster.

“The next step is working with the House to determine what measures we can agree on to improve water supplies. My hope is that this process can proceed quickly and bypass many of the controversial issues that have been raised in the past. While we do need long-term solutions to the state’s water problems, the bill the Senate passed today authorizes immediate actions to help California, and I think that’s what we must focus on and reach agreement quickly.”

The Emergency Drought Relief Act is a narrowly-focused bill to address the most dire effects of drought in California. The bill leaves federal laws and regulations untouched—including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and all biological opinions. Its goal is to cut red tape and increase operational flexibility for federal agencies.

The bill includes five key provisions for California to maximize water supplies during the drought while operating within environmental laws and regulations:

  • Federal agencies must open the Delta Cross Channel Gates for as long as possible while salmon are not migrating, which will allow additional water to be pumped without harming fish or water quality.
  • The Bureau of Reclamation is required to monitor turbid (cloudy or opaque) water, which will allow water pumping operations to be adjusted when endangered fish that are attracted to turbid waters swim close to pumps.
  • Movement of voluntary water transfers must remain at a one-to-one ratio for the months of April and May while the governor’s drought declaration remains in effect. This means any water transfers sent down the San Joaquin River are allowed to be pumped out of the Delta at an equal amount. This provision only applies to voluntary water transfers, not the river’s regular flow, and must adhere to current law.
  • Federal agencies must provide maximum water supplies possible from Delta pumping while remaining consistent with the Endangered Species Act and biological opinions for both smelt and salmon.
  • The review process for installing temporary barriers and operable gates in the Delta must be expedited, which will help manage salinity and improve the quantity and quality of water.

Among the bill’s other provisions:

  • The bill puts in place a 30-day timeline for federal agencies to approve California water contractors’ requests to voluntarily fallow non-permanent crops such as rice. This would reduce delays to potential water transfers to other users.
  • WaterSMART grants in California are prioritized to help communities with emergency water needs, to prevent loss of permanent crops and to minimize economic loss from the drought.
  • Rescheduled water supplies that are banked in wet years as a hedge against dry years must be reserved for water contractors who stored them and made available unless there is not enough storage space in the San Luis and Millerton Reservoirs to keep both new and rescheduled water.
  • The Bureau of Reclamation is allowed to meet California wildlife refuge water requirements in a number of ways as long as the actions do not violate water quality standards or cause land subsidence. This action could make additional surface water available for water contractors.
  • Federal agencies are directed to use every scientific tool at their disposal to make more accurate and real-time adjustments to the operations of water projects to increase water supply.
  • The National Academy of Sciences is directed to study the effectiveness and environmental effects of saltcedar biological control efforts, including the potential to increase water supplies and improve riparian habitats in California.
  • Environmental projects are authorized to facilitate emergency water supply projects by offsetting any environmental effects.

Effects of the drought:

  • The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that 800,000 acres of farm land will be fallowed, removing them from production. The coalition also estimates that California’s economy could lose as much as $7.5 billion and 15,000 jobs.
  • A recent report from the University of California, Davis estimates the Central Valley’s agriculture industry will lose $1.7 billion in economic activity and will see a 32 percent (6.5 million acre foot) reduction in surface water supplies as a direct result of the drought.

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