How the feds can ensure Western states get more water in 2016

Key legislation failed in 2015. Will this year be any different?


This summer, as California was struggling through its fourth and most severe year of drought, two California Congressmen unveiled legislation meant to ease the pain. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Rep. David Valadao (R) introduced, respectively, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015 and the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. Though both are aimed primarily at their home state, the bills’ scope is West-wide. 

Both, for example, seek more federal money for new water storage and infrastructure projects. Both would expedite environmental review of those projects, and maximize water supply for farms and communities. And both “contain provisions that could alter the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and, in some cases, potentially set a precedent for how federal agencies address endangered and threatened species,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Those precedents include limiting federal agencies’ ability to manage stream flows for endangered fish. 

Beyond these similarities, the bills take wildly different paths. Feinstein’s (preferred by environmentalists) focuses on water recycling and desalination; Valadeo’s on squeezing more from rivers. Still, as summer stretched into fall with little relief for sun-blasted California, there was hope the two could find common ground. More than 100 farm groups and water authorities signed a letter in October asking Congress to compromise. Environmental groups — despite their opposition to the endangered species implications — agreed something needed to be done.

Yet the year ended without any such progress. 

Not only were Feinstein and Valadao’s bills caught up in political bickering, Congress also failed to pass any of the six or so other drought relief bills introduced by Western lawmakers. And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, never introduced the comprehensive drought package she’d hinted at. 

Agriculture is one of the primary industries impacted by drought in California.
Creative Common/Flickr user Russ Allison Loar

On January 11, the Senate reconvenes. Despite El Niño’s snow and rain, the drought will march on. Lawmakers in 2016 will be faced with the same challenges they failed to address in 2015: securing water for agriculture and communities. Planning for a drier, more populous future. Protecting water-dependent fish and wildlife. Will they do any better? 

Jimmy Hague, director of the Center for Water Resources with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is skeptical. If Congress wasn’t able to reach a compromise in 2015, why would 2016 — with the added challenges of an election year — be any different? “It is really difficult to get consensus on water legislation,” Hague says. “All the controversy between those two bills still exists, and now we’ve added a presidential election year on top of it.” 

Nonetheless, Hague thinks that Western water woes will get a helping hand from the feds in 2016. That’s because there are at least 20 measures that agencies can implement without Congressional action. Many were detailed in a list of recommendations that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy submitted to the White House last summer — around the same time that Feinstein and Valadeo were unveiling their bills. 

Compared to the controversial congressional legislation, the list didn’t exactly grab headlines. While legislation calls for desalination plants and dam-building, the conservation groups’ ideas include things like allowing the Internal Revenue Service to include “water donations” as a tax write-off, or encouraging the Bureau of Reclamation to fill and draw down reservoirs based on actual conditions rather than set-in-stone calendar dates.

But while Congress’ plans have stalled, these smaller administrative solutions may be gaining traction. Several were implemented in 2015, including an expansion of the Bureau of Reclamation's “WaterSMART” program. Among other things, WaterSMART grants have been used to reduce leakage in aging irrigation canals. That keeps more water in rivers for fish and wildlife. A project on Montana’s Sun River saved 10,000 acre-feet of water annually. 

Hague believes that the Obama administration will keep quietly plugging away at similar drought resilience projects in 2016 — stuff that doesn’t get much attention but could have big impacts. And lawmakers, for their part, say they’re committed to doing better. Nine Western senators, both Democrat and Republican, wrote a letter asking Murkowski (who chairs the committee though which all drought bills must pass) to not give up on drought negotiations. Murkowski’s spokesman, Michael Tadeo, wrote to High Country News that the Senator has no plans to do so: drought is among her top priorities for the year. 

Yet in a Congress where snowballs are held up to disprove global warming, there are fears that this winter’s rain and snow might derail progress on drought negotiations. “There’s been this pattern,” Hague says. “There’s a drought and people freak out about it and work on solutions, and then it rains and they forget about it. And then the cycle repeats itself.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News.  

High Country News Classifieds