Panel to mull opportunities for addressing Western water shortage

With California gripped by a record drought and broad swaths of the rest of the West dry and getting drier, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will this week take a deep dive into the issue.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been locked in negotiations with her upper and lower chamber colleagues, as well as the state government and federal agencies, for more than a year in search of ways to legislatively deliver more water to the desperate central and southern portions of her state without devastating endangered fish populations.

But even as those battles take place behind closed doors, some lawmakers from across the West are taking California's plight as a warning that the region's parched conditions are not just temporary weather but a long-term challenge that must be met head-on.

Drought conditions have now spread to encompass roughly the entire Western third of the United States. A warm, snowless winter has left the normally soggy Pacific Northwest low on water, and New Mexico is years into painfully parched conditions.

In California, where the drought is stretching into a fourth year, the Sierra Nevada registered no snow on its network of automated sensors last week, meaning mountain streams that feed key state and federal reservoirs will be starved of their normal supply of runoff this summer.


Tomorrow, the full Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will place the situation front and center, hearing about not just conditions on the ground but also opportunities for improving them.

To be sure, there are plenty of ideas, from market-oriented approaches like water banking, to construction of more reservoirs for storage, to finding ways of offering flexibility within the Endangered Species Act's protections, to efficiency measures that conserve water.

Tomorrow's hearing will lay the groundwork for a West-wide drought bill that could come from ENR Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and others later this year (E&E Daily, May 21).

Among those testifying tomorrow will be Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor, who has spent his career grappling with the West's technically and politically fraught water issues.

In addition to responding to the immediate crises in California and elsewhere, Connor's department is helping the key players in river basins across the West better understand their circumstances and plan for the future. The Colorado River Basin, which faces a major gap between supply and demand in the coming years, is furthest along in that "basin study" process and recently completed a closer look at what can be done within the two largest areas of water use -- agriculture and municipal use.

The conclusion there, though, was the same one lawmakers will face in any attempt at legislation: There are no silver bullets, and few, if any, of the opportunities that do exist are cheap (Greenwire, May 13).

Schedule: The hearing is Tuesday, June 2, at 10 a.m. in 366 Dirksen.

Witnesses: Mike Connor, deputy Interior secretary; Thomas Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources; Tom Loranger, water resources program manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology; Betsy Cody, natural resources policy specialist for the Congressional Research Service; Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Co., on behalf of the Family Farm Alliance; and James Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors' Association.

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