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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Testimony Highlights Stark Differences in Drought Bills

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Senate heard testimony Thursday on dueling congressional bills seeking to quench drought-stricken California's thirst.

"This drought is worse than anything I have seen in my lifetime, and I am very worried about what it means for the state of California," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said, adding that snowpack in California - a major water supply for the state - has not been this low in 500 years.

Droughts in the western United States will likely become chronic and severe, she added, and urged the Senate to support drought-relief legislation she introduced.

Her bill - the California Emergency Drought Relief Act - would allocate funds for desalination, water recycling and storage projects, and would boost conservation efforts.

In stark contrast, the House Western Water and American Food Security Act introduced by California Rep. David G. Valadao, R-Hanford, would divert federally protected water into California's San Joaquin Valley by rolling back provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

The Senate bill and its supporters - including many environmental groups - strongly oppose this.

Court restrictions have long prevented the diversion of water from rivers and estuaries in the West, to protect endangered fish species.

Valadao cautioned the committee that a chunk of his mostly rural congressional district in the San Joaquin Valley could become a dust bowl if immediate action is not taken to change policies that "put the lives of fish above the lives of people."

Support for the bills is largely divided along party lines, but witnesses at the hearing on Thursday debated the main tension between them - whether to override federal environmental regulations in the quest for drought relief.

The Obama administration strongly opposes the House bill, and the president has threatened to veto it.

"Rather than increasing water supplies, HR 2898 dictates operational decisions, prescribes infeasible outcomes, and creates new conflicts among existing laws that will hinder, rather than help, an effective drought response," Michael L. Connor, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior testified.

The House bill would increase drought-related litigation and would constitute "unprecedented" congressional amendments to scientifically sound biological opinions, he said, adding that it won't solve the long-term problem of ongoing drought from climate change.

The House bill would also permanently override Endangered Species Act protections for fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, according to the Center for Biological Diversity .

Other panelists, however, expressed support for the House bill. Sarah Woolf, president of Water Wise and a former California farmer, chided the 2009 biological opinion issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that restricts water pumping in California's Central Valley.

As a result, "over 1.1 trillion gallons of water have been flushed to the ocean," she said in written testimony. "That is water that is lost forever."

"The government cannot make decisions to flush that amount of water while bemoaning the 'drought,'" she said. "Not with a straight face, anyway."

Richard Frank, director of an environmental law center at the University of California Davis, criticized the House bill for merely reallocating water resources. A better long-term approach is to "expand the pie" through water recycling, reuse and conservation efforts, he said - expressing more support for the Senate bill.

Regardless of party lines, Connor said federal and state regulations need to work together moving forward. The greatest challenge for lawmakers in drafting drought legislation will be reconciling water operations with environmental conservation laws, he said.

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