As California enters the fifth consecutive year of unprecedented drought, Congress is debating two competing bills designed to provide federal drought relief to California agriculture. The proposals reveal stark differences in proposed federal water and environmental policy.
That Congress is considering federal drought assistance for California is welcomed – and most appropriate, given the federal government’s substantial role in the state’s water and environmental policies.
The federal government operates the Central Valley Project, a massive water storage and transportation system upon which much of the state depends. And federal regulators administer a host of environmental laws – most prominently the Endangered Species Act – vital to preservation of California environmental values.
Rep. David Valadao and fellow Republican House members from the San Joaquin Valley are sponsoring HR 2898, which has passed the House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate. Simply put, the bill would shift water resources devoted to California’s environment to agricultural users in the Valley. It would do so by modifying the ESA and other federal environmental laws, and suspend the government’s obligation under a recent, Congress-approved litigation settlement to restore water flows to the San Joaquin River.
While it’s been reported that California agriculture weathered the drought quite successfully, the environment has suffered disproportionately.
In response to the House bill, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have introduced their own, competing drought relief proposal, S 1894. That bill takes a very different approach from its House counterpart.
Rather than suspend or repeal key environmental laws to accommodate agricultural interests, the Feinstein/Boxer bill seeks to expand available water resources for all Californians. It does so by offering federal support for water recycling efforts, desalination projects, stormwater capture, and agricultural and urban water conservation.
To be sure, the House and Senate bills share some common features. Both would require expedited economic feasibility studies for new, surface water storage projects long advocated by agricultural interests. And both would require that environmental review of federal drought relief projects be expedited, a sensible strategy.
Richard M. Frank is a professor of environmental practice and director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at the UC Davis School of Law.
Moreover, the Senate bill expressly rejects the waiver or repeal of federal environmental laws to accommodate water demands of California farmers and ranchers. In sum, the House bill would simply reallocate a portion of California’s finite water resources from one important use – preserving the environment – to another: agriculture.
You would expect the professor to be a little more objective in his use of terms. No, professor, the House bill reallocates water from a small fish to the production of food for humans.