California Drought Relief Bill Passes House

By Caroline E. Murphy

Mammoth Pool Reservoir on the San Joaquin River. Mammoth Pool Reservoir on the San Joaquin River.
Image Credit: Richard E. Ellis

The U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 2898 on Thursday; a bill to provide relief from California’s drought to agricultural communities, which includes controversial provisions aimed at state fisheries.

The provisions of the largely Republican-backed H.R. 2898, known as the “Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015”, include expanding water access to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, streamlining state water infrastructure projects, and repealing the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act.

Lawmakers in favor of the bill have hailed it as an effective way of redistributing water to those that need it most. It would speed up water infrastructure projects delayed as a result of ongoing impact studies as well as streamline permitting for future infrastructure projects. In addition, the proposed increase in water access to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would redistribute the water to hard-hit agricultural communities in the Central Valley of California.

The Obama Administration and many House Democrats have come out against the measure, expressing concerns over the state’s right to regulate, the effectiveness of the bill in alleviating human suffering, and the toll the bill would have on endangered species.

A major point of contention is the proposed repeal of the San Joaquin River Restoration Act, which was enacted to restore California’s second-largest river along with its salmon runs. Those in favor of the bill claim that in a time of drought crisis and tight federal budgets, there are far better uses for these funds than supporting endangered salmon populations.

Many House Democrats have fired back, arguing that by halting restoration efforts and pulling large amounts of water from the San Joaquin River, House Republicans are attempting to slowly chip away at Endangered Species Act protections.

While proponents of the measure say this is not the bill’s goal, Representative David Valadao (R-CA), who authored the legislation, stated recently during an interview that legislators have an opportunity to “adjust and change and hopefully someday repeal” the Endangered Species Act.

Although the bill has passed the House, this version will likely never reach a vote in the Senate. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is currently drafting a Senate version of the drought relief bill. In a statement released by Feinstein, she expressed her willingness to negotiate with House Republicans on their version of the bill, as it contains some “useful short term provisions as well as some provisions that would violate environmental law.”

With the uncertainty of the bill’s future in Congress and a promise from the Obama Administration to veto the bill in its current form, it is unclear whether California will receive federal drought assistance before Congress adjourns.

Sources: Greenwire (July 16, 2015), Environment & Energy Daily (July 15, 2015), Environment & Energy Daily (July 13, 2015), Greenwire (July 9, 2015)

Caroline Murphy is the Government Affairs Associate at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program.

Read more of Caroline's articles.