Just after 1 a.m. on Dec. 10, the U.S. Senate approved the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which includes the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA), by a vote of 78-21. This legislation has something in it for everyone, including provisions to address lead-contaminated drinking water, more than $10 billion in flood control, navigation, environmental restoration projects and other measures.
The bill’s provisions to address California drought relief were perhaps the most controversial. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and some other Western Democrats opposed to this portion of the bill failed to gather enough support to block a final vote. Boxer led an effort to kill the entire bill, saying that drought relief provisions negotiated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a portion of the California House Delegation would harm endangered species in the Sacramento River-San Joaquin River Delta and open the door to weakening the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Supporters of the drought provisions, including the Family Farm Alliance, argued that the bill does not amend the ESA and is not a long-term solution to California’s water needs. Rather, it stays within current Biological Opinions (documents that are the product of formal consultation) and allows flexibility for short-term relief.
After the overwhelming House vote, 360-61, in favor of the measure, Boxer gave up her bid to filibuster the measure. California producers can thank Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for their leadership on this matter and guiding this important legislation through Congress.
Not only did the Family Farm Alliance support the California provisions (representatives of the alliance testified in support twice before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the past year), but it also supported and helped craft various provisions of past bills that ended up in the final WIIN package. One bill subtitle authorizes $535 million for desalination, recycling and storage projects in the West, and for the control of invasive species and fish restoration activities; and it allows Western water users to accelerate repayments of project costs to the federal treasury. Of the $43 million authorized to benefit endangered and threatened fish and wildlife, the bill reauthorizes $15 million for fish passage projects, including fish screens, through the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Under the program, originally authorized under the recently expired Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act of 2000, funds will be available to cost-share up to 35% for fish passage projects in the states of California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
The WIIN is a large, detailed bill that aggressively and constructively attempts to tackle the near-term drought challenges of California’s Central Valley and also provides solutions that will assist other Western states. The bill’s passage shows that, while the Congress and the federal government certainly cannot change the hydrology of the West, there is a role they can play to support family farmers and ranchers. We must all work together to ensure that Western water users have every tool available to survive and recover from the current drought and the hard, dry years that the future may hold.
Keppen is executive director for the Family Farm Alliance, a west-wide coalition of farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts and allied industries that advocates for reliable and affordable irrigation.