May 1, 2015

Congress Grapples with Drought Action

For the last several years, farmers in California and throughout the West have faced water pressures and shortages as drought grips the country.  Early last year, both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would address the drought in California and attempt to provide some immediate assistance.  But like much of Congress’ work, compromise proved to be elusive and neither of those efforts reached the president’s desk.

What happened, and more importantly, what prospects are there for action this Congress?

Last year after both the House and the Senate passed separate drought relief bills, negotiations between both chambers collapsed unexpectedly late in the year.  As was reported in the press, meetings had advanced the bill to near completion when discussion ceased.  The media reported that the central premise of that negotiation was to simply try to give water agencies more flexibility to shift allocations between environmental requirements and the needs of users in the most drought-stricken parts of California.

It is not entirely clear why talks stopped.  California Senator Dianne Feinstein indicated publicly that negotiations were halted, at least in part, due to public pressure being leveled against the package and the lack of transparency.  Additionally, pressure from fellow California Senator Barbara Boxer that no input from Northern California stakeholders had been given played a role.


Where are we now?

Unfortunately prospects for passage of a California-only water package is extremely slim.  In the Senate, moving a package last year for California only was difficult with many Senate offices only reluctantly allowing the bill to move forward without legislation addressing interests that they have for their states.  This year will be no less difficult in the Senate.  Thus while we anticipate that Senator Feinstein and the California Congressional delegation could well put forward bills, trying to find a vehicle to which those bills could attach will be difficult and critical to any success.


What are the options?

On the legislative front, if a California package can be agreed upon, there might be some room to combine California’s provisions with provisions that would impact other Western states.  While California’s drought reaches a level of severity that has not been seen in a 1,200 years, it is not the only state in a long and prolonged period of drought.  Throughout the Western United States drought conditions are either in place today or have been severe.  Indeed, the Colorado River Basin has been in a drought pattern now for more than a decade with water levels at Lake Mead approaching levels at which water rationing to Arizona and Nevada should be triggered.

Beyond that, NASA scientists recently predicted that this pattern of extended droughts is likely to continue through the next 50-plus years.  As a result many Western state congressional members from both parties are interested in taking productive steps that could help in their respective states.


What role will Western Growers try to play?

Should an effort take off, Western Growers is assembling ideas for inclusion in this western-wide package from sources and our producers operating in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada.  The idea is to find both specific ideas as well as patterns within the various states to draw out ideas that could apply in multiple watersheds across the West.  Some of these ideas would have short-term impact; others would help over a longer horizon.


What’s an example of an idea that could help in the long-term?

Last year, a bipartisan-supported provision that would streamline the federal Environmental Protection Agency permitting process for building water related infrastructure like ports or levees was included in the water infrastructure bill that passed.  The notion was to dramatically cut down the amount of time it took to get federal clearance for projects without destroying underlying environmental protections.  Likewise reducing the time it takes for federal clearance for projects that would build desalination, reservoirs or groundwater recharge facilities would have appeal in many drought-stricken states.

With the presidential election in 2016 taking up time and space, any movement on such a bill must occur before spring of next year.  Just as we did last year when we reached out to members of Congress on a California drought relief bill, we will push forward your interests.  Without water we cannot grow the food that America needs.  It’s just that simple, and so as we engage with Congress, we are pushing that message forward and demanding that Congress find solutions to help in both this immediate crisis as well as build a more resilient system going forward.