Calif. House bill in works could portend wider Western drought legislation

By Nick Juliano, Annie Snider | 05/21/2015 07:40 AM EDT

House Republicans from California are readying legislation to address their home state’s ongoing drought by focusing on water transfers and storage while attempting to avoid the most controversial proposals to roll back environmental regulations that sank earlier legislative efforts.

House Republicans from California are readying legislation to address their home state’s ongoing drought by focusing on water transfers and storage while attempting to avoid the most controversial proposals to roll back environmental regulations that sank earlier legislative efforts.

A bill is expected to be introduced as soon as next month, after lawmakers return from their upcoming weeklong Memorial Day recess. Details are being closely guarded, but sources familiar with the effort say the California-specific legislation would likely become part of a broader bill addressing drought conditions across the West.

A draft bill circulating among stakeholders would tweak Endangered Species Act protections for fish that inhabit the state’s main water delivery system in order to send more water south, similar to bills that passed the House last year. But a GOP aide said the proposal was not a reflection of the "current state of play" on a California water bill, which would focus primarily on delivering water south and increasing storage capacity.


Rep. Jim Costa, a moderate Democrat who represents parts of California’s agriculture-heavy Central Valley, said he has offered Republicans some suggestions for their bill but that the authors have been "understandably" tight-lipped about its contents. He said he expects a bill to be introduced the week of June 1, following the congressional recess, and added that action is even more necessary this year as conditions continue to deteriorate because of the drought.

"Just as last year we were attempting to deal with both short-term and long-term solutions, we were not successful, and things have not gotten any better," Costa said.

The goal of the California Republicans writing the bill is to arrive at a proposal that could win support from at least six Senate Democrats whose votes would be needed to avoid a filibuster in that chamber and to win President Obama’s signature, these sources say. But it remains to be seen whether such consensus would be possible.

Key targets include Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tom Udall of New Mexico, an aide involved in the process said. But House Republicans are largely writing off the chance of securing support from more liberal Westerners such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada or California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who objected to earlier drought bills over proposed changes to environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act.

Costa reiterated the advice he said he gave Boxer last year — "at some point, she’s got to decide whether she wants to try to help solve some of these problems or whether she’s satisfied with the status quo" — but said he did not know whether she is involved in negotiations.

"There may be engagement," he said. "But I’m not aware of it."

Regarding concerns over the effects of drought relief on wildlife, Costa recalled studies he read arguing that the effects of climate change may drive some species extinct regardless of what is done in response to the drought and suggested that lawmakers needed to narrow their focus.

"A lot of species we’re attempting to save may become extinct anyway," Costa told reporters yesterday. "And so we’re not having the conversation — if, in fact, biologists believe that to be the case in the next 40 to 60 years — where do we best use our resources to manage those species that we can maintain?"

Costa said he spoke with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski earlier this week about a Western drought bill the Alaska Republican is working on. And he plans to meet today with California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird, who is on Capitol Hill this week meeting with various lawmakers about the drought.

Costa also praised the Obama administration, particularly Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor, who has been spearheading the drought response. But the federal government’s overall approach has been focused mostly on supporting the California state government and waiting for consensus to emerge among the state’s congressional delegation, "which has been an elusive goal," he noted.

"In terms of taking any big action, I think, on an issue that has been as contentious as water has been in California for decades, they’re not going to take the leadership role, is my point," Costa said of the administration. "But have they been involved? Yes."

Murkowski is also following the negotiations with an eye toward West-wide collaboration.

"Senator Murkowski recognizes the seriousness of the drought conditions in California and throughout the West and stands ready to help her colleagues in the Senate and the House find a solution that addresses these serious concerns," spokesman Mike Tadeo said.

In a separate interview with E&E Daily yesterday, Connor said his department is in close contact with lawmakers as they work on legislation.

"We’ve been providing a lot of technical support to particularly Senator Feinstein and her staff as they’ve gone through various machinations of potential drought legislation," he said. "We haven’t taken a position on any legislation at this point in time."

Connor, who served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation before moving up to the Interior Department’s No. 2 spot last year, said that the administration has been focused on finding room for additional flexibility and boosting water deliveries while still working within the Endangered Species Act. To that end, the extra funding appropriators have sent their way has been key, he said. Yesterday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced $50 million in grants from the Reclamation Wastewater and Groundwater Study and Facilities Act to improve water efficiency and conservation in California and 11 other Western states.

"The resources that we’ve been provided through the appropriations process I think have been well invested," Connor said. "I think the monitoring, the science, the data gathering activities have helped us be more flexible in our operations, so we could certainly do more of that."

The Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to mark up its energy and water development funding bill, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, later this morning. The bill passed out of subcommittee includes $50 million in emergency drought relief funds, and Feinstein has signaled she may push to increase that amount.

Connor said he would welcome a broader conversation in Congress about drought across the West, where the current parched conditions are exacerbating a growing gap between supply and demand in many booming regions.

He noted that in the West, where communities’ water supplies can come from far-flung sources, impacts in one area can have knock-on effects in others. For instance, he pointed out that Southern California gets water both from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, known as the Bay Delta, and from the Colorado River.

"There’s a nexus there, and when we lose flexibility in both systems like we’re having now with the drought in both areas, it certainly increases the challenges that we all have," he said. "We’re working with a lot of state and local entities on ways to create resilience long-term, given the fact that projections are for us to continue to experience challenges, and there may be some legislation that’s needed out of that, or there may be just some actions that we can take through negotiated agreements that help us get more flexibility into the systems."

Agricultural producers in the San Joaquin Valley who backed last year’s attempts by the House are getting impatient.

"We’re not holding our breath for a drought bill out of Congress," said John Broeske, executive director of the group Families Protecting the Valley. "For anything meaningful like a redo of the [San Joaquin] River restoration or a modification of the ESA, even with a Republican House and Senate, there is still the Obama veto to overcome."

Reporter Debra Kahn contributed.