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Return of helpful bills for the West

Water Lines: The new Congress has reintroduced several bills of value to irrigators.

Dan Keppen

February 21, 2019

3 Min Read
irrigation sprinklers in green field
A LITTLE HELP: Congress is bringing back bills that didn’t pass in the 115th Congress that offer Western irrigators relief and some protection. Matt Kilroy/Getty Images

As the new Congress haltingly started the new year, several natural resource bills important to Western irrigators were reintroduced from the 115th Congress.

The Federally Integrated Species Health (FISH) Act, introduced by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., would consolidate the fish protections and waterway regulations of the Endangered Species Act under one agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The ESA is currently administered by FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The FWS has primary responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, while the responsibilities of NMFS are mainly marine wildlife such as whales and anadromous fish, such as salmon. The FISH Act would transfer NMFS’ ESA responsibilities for management of anadromous species to the FWS.

ESA consultation decisions made by either or both agencies regarding operations plans for federal water projects like those in the Columbia River Basin, California’s Central Valley and the Klamath Basin have significantly impacted historic operations by rededicating water once used to support agricultural irrigation to the perceived needs of fish, frogs and other species protected under the ESA.

I testified in support of this legislation before a Congressional committee in 2017. Combining NMFS and FWS under one roof will provide for more efficient, effective, and coordinated management of all ESA responsibilities for anadromous and freshwater fish in Western watersheds, from the highest reaches of headwater areas to the Pacific Ocean.

A matter of rights
The Water Rights Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., would prohibit conditioning of agreements over the leasing of public lands on the transfer of any privately owned water right to certain federal agencies. The Family Farm Alliance (FFA) was actively engaged when this act passed out of the House in the past three Congresses.

Tipton first introduced this legislation in response to federal land management agencies that had leveraged Western water users to acquire additional water supplies for the federal government. The agencies did so by requiring water users to apply for their rights under state law in the name of the U.S., rather than for themselves.

Federal agencies should not be able to leverage those water rights against farming and ranching families who have long depended upon federal permits and leases to support actions like grazing. This act would prohibit any federal agency from requiring the transfer of privately held water rights as a permit condition.

The new Senate quickly set its sights on a land package that would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The provisions of the Water and Power title of the 660-page Natural Resources Management Act were among a package of legislative amendments that the FFA supported last year. This title contains Bureau of Reclamation title transfer provisions and authorizes conveyances of Bureau of Reclamation facilities. The bill also reauthorizes important endangered fish recovery programs in the Colorado River Basin and authorizes Phase 3 of the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project in Washington state.

With the government back up and running, there may be opportunities to move some of this legislation that will assuredly benefit Western water users.

Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance.


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