Panel seeks to craft foundation for broad drought bill

By Annie Snider | 10/09/2015 06:55 AM EDT

Senate efforts to pass drought relief legislation for California and the West will hinge on key negotiators’ ability to come closer to agreement, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) signaled yesterday.

During a legislative hearing that offered the first major public discussion of issues that have been the focus of backroom negotiations for months, she repeatedly pressed witnesses for areas of common ground.

"We could talk about Goldilocks here, and which one is too big, too small, which one is just right," Murkowski said, referring to the pair of California measures before the committee — H.R. 2898 from Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and S. 1894 from California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.


"But I think it’s important to acknowledge that these are very complicated — some very complex — issues, and we need to reach a unified legislative response," she said.

Valadao’s measure, which the House passed in July, would loosen environmental restrictions and raise the bar for how much water should be pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to parched agricultural communities in the Central Valley and municipalities farther south. It would also ease the path for new storage projects.

It was fiercly divisive in the House, where it passed on a nearly party-line vote over objections from Northern California Democrats who argued it would gut Endangered Species Act protections and would simply shift more water to some communities at the expense of others.

Feinstein and Boxer’s measure would still give some temporary operational guidance to federal agencies but would focus more on boosting their flexibility to make decisions around flow levels. It would also fund work on longer-term solutions, including desalination, storage and water recycling.

"It’s very difficult to get consensus in California water on anything that’s meaningful," acknowledged Feinstein, who testified before the committee alongside Boxer and Valadao.

The Obama administration, which threatened to veto the House measure, sees the Senate bill as more in line with its approach, said Michael Connor, deputy Interior secretary, although it also has concerns with some of the measure’s provisions.

Murkowski took a light-handed approach to discussing differences between the two sides yesterday — notably over Endangered Species Act protections, the cost of a measure and how to pay for it — but acknowledged that they will be significant considerations.

Instead, she focused on areas of agreement that could serve as a foundation for a broader bill.

"We’ve got some things that we can be building on," she said. "Clearly there’s a role for technology to play here."

Desalination and water recycling, she said, could allow for a potentially "game-changing" approach to water supply management.

There was also widespread interest in increasing water storage across the West.

Beyond California, some contours of broader Western provisions began to come into focus at yesterday’s hearing.

Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, floated a handful of ideas for getting dollars to Western water fixes without hitting the federal budget — an issue Murkowski expressed keen interest in. Among them: spinning off innovative financing programs for transportation to the water supply sector and offering loan guarantee programs for large-scale infrastructure projects.

The committee also heard testimony on a New Mexico drought relief measure, S. 1936, from the state’s Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich.

There, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which provides irrigation water to the region’s farms, had long opposed water leasing programs that would enable temporary transfers of water from agriculture to environmental flows. But the district recently changed its position, Vice Chairman Adrian Oglesby said yesterday. Among other things, Udall and Heinrich’s measure would lay the foundation for such transfers to be able to take place.