An E&E Publishing Service
WATER: Feinstein broadens drought bill to attract GOP support (Thursday, April 3, 2014)
Debra Kahn, E&E reporter
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has reintroduced a bill to deal with California’s historic drought with a broader focus and a new, bipartisan lineup of co-sponsors.
The bill, introduced Tuesday, drops “California” from the title to become the “Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014.” It also drops $300 million in emergency funding for the state and adds other states, including Arizona, Hawaii and Nevada, as potential beneficiaries.
The new version also adds Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) as co-sponsors, alongside original sponsors Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
“We have removed the emergency spending part of the bill, candidly, because obviously we need 60 votes and it was a problem for the Republican side,” Feinstein said yesterday at a budget hearing on the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation. She said she hoped to receive cloture on the bill to bring it to a vote quickly.
The bill now includes federal funds to purchase water to keep Lake Mead at high levels and prevent cutbacks to users in Arizona, California and Nevada, as well as an authorization to increase the caps for the Drought Relief Act of 1991 and the Secure Water Act by $100 million each, to benefit all Western states in drought conditions.
It also allows Reclamation to waive cost-share requirements for its WaterSMART grant program in emergencies and to prioritize projects that are most helpful during drought, including water purchases, conservation projects, groundwater wells and irrigation improvements.
The bill still targets environmental protections for fish, including instructions to manage the state and federal water projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to maximize pumping to farms and cities farther south (E&ENews PM, Feb. 11).
Feinstein has been moving closer to Republicans on drought legislation since February, when the House passed Rep. David Valadao’s (R-Calif.) H.R. 3964, which would overturn environmental restrictions on water deliveries to the Central Valley. Feinstein, Valadao and other members of the California delegation asked the Commerce and Interior departments last week to ease rules that protect endangered fish in order to send more water out of the delta (E&E Daily, March 28).
Feinstein also used yesterday’s hearing to hammer water managers on their response to the drought. She urged the Bureau of Reclamation to do as much as possible to keep water flowing through the delta to the farms and cities that depend on it to supply 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland, even at the expense of endangered fish in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
“When this happened a few years ago, the unemployment in valley towns, particularly Mendota, was 40 percent, and farmers were actually in bread lines,” she said. “So I understand the fish. But I also understand that people have to live and earn and be able to buy their food.”
Reclamation acting Commissioner Lowell Pimley cited decisions made earlier this week to increase pumping from the delta. On Tuesday, state and federal water managers waived rules protecting endangered fish in order to take advantage of rainstorms, the latest in a series of rule changes to maximize pumping. This week’s action suspended a rule that protects the Central Valley steelhead trout by requiring a certain amount of water to enter the delta relative to the amount being pumped out (Greenwire, April 2).
“Those actions were taken as a measured approach to not just the concern about the drought but also the need to strike a balance between the fishery concerns and the needs of water supply,” Pimley said.
Reporter Annie Snider contributed.