This past week, 15 members of Congress sent a letter to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-WA, noting that over half of the contiguous U.S. is in moderate to severe drought, and requesting “a bipartisan hearing on the drought impacts across the nation.” The letter expressed concern about three kinds of impacts: reduced water and power deliveries, wildfires on public lands, and harm to wildlife and fisheries. The good news is that 15 House members are concerned enough about the ongoing drought to request a hearing on it, and that they recognize fish and wildlife as major victims. The bad news is that all 15 are Democrats, so we shouldn’t expect a hearing anytime soon.
House Republicans did, however, pass H.R. 3964, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act. It was a very partisan vote, with only 2 R’s voting no and 7 D’s voting yes. The bill seeks to ensure that farmers in California’s Central Valley get the water they believe is theirs, while rolling back some measures to protect and restore fish and wildlife. A key part of the bill would overturn a major legal settlement on the San Joaquin River, approved by Congress in 2009. This bill basically reflects the view that fish and wildlife–or rather, efforts to ensure adequate water for fish and wildlife–actually cause drought from the farmer’s standpoint.
Democrats blasted the bill, not surprisingly, and said it would go nowhere in the Senate. The White House issued a veto threat, raising a number of fundamental concerns with H.R. 3964 and suggesting that Congress should focus its attention on legislation that would actually do some good in addressing California’s drought. The White House specifically mentioned reauthorizing the an obscure law called the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act.
Originally enacted in 1991, the Drought Relief Act gives the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation power to take certain actions in drought-stricken areas of the West. In dry times like these, the law has some potentially useful provisions: it authorizes the Bureau to take drought relief measures such as drilling wells, providing temporary water supplies, or even making loans for conservation projects. It also allows the Bureau to provide water for fish and wildlife habitat, and specifically directs the Bureau to examine how it can carry out the law in a way that helps mitigate drought impacts on fish and wildlife. Key provisions of the law had expired in 2012, but Congress revived them in last month’s big federal spending bill, extending them into 2017.
So in renewing the Drought Relief Act, this Congress actually did something right? Yes, but there is more to do, and the ball is now in the Bureau’s court. As I wrote in my 2012 DoubleWhammy article, the Bureau has never come close to making the most of its Drought Relief Act authorities. With most of the West in drought, and key areas of California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico in extreme drought or worse, the time is now to use all the available tools. And the Drought Relief Act is current law, so the Bureau does not need to wait for new power from Congress. And that’s a good thing, because bipartisan action on drought relief is not in the forecast.