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Feinstein Introduces California Emergency Drought Relief Act Allaying Arizona Concerns about Potential Water Grab

After months of negotiations among interested parties, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–CA) introduced the California Emergency Drought Relief Act (S. 1894) on July 29th. The bill includes “both short- and long-term provisions designed to help communities cope with the ongoing drought and combat future droughts.”

Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA), who co-sponsored the bill, said, “I am pleased to be sponsoring Senator Feinstein’s new water bill, which addresses California’s devastating drought in a multi-faceted way. I am now sponsoring three drought bills because of the enormity of this crisis, and I hope we can advance the best of these measures to help alleviate the pain being felt across California.”

Major provisions in the bill include:

* Creating a program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stabilize water supplies for small rural and disadvantaged communities and larger communities where drinking water quality or quantity has dropped significantly

* Providing the state with tools to protect public health and safety and increase drought resiliency by prioritizing State Revolving Funds for communities most at risk of running out of water

* Authorizing $50 million for feasibility studies and design of seawater and brackish water desalination facilities and another $50 million for research to improve or develop new technologies to reduce environmental impacts and reduce the cost of desalination

* Promoting activities to increase storage by establishing deadline for the Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”) to complete feasibility studies for CALFED storage projects so they can compete for Prop. 1 funding; authorizing $600 million for CALFED water storage projects; and updating Army Corps of Engineers operations to increase water supply and reduce flood risk

* Identifying a list of 105 potential water recycling projects that could produce nearly 854,000 AF per year and authorizing an increase of $200 million in funding for Reclamation’s water recycling and reuse program

* Encouraging additional conservation by authorizing the Department of the Interior (“DOI”) to pay irrigators to install conservation technologies, like drip irrigation; authorizing an EPA program to label water-efficient products; and requiring water conservation projects at military installations in California

* Authorizing funding for loan guarantees, WaterSMART, water recycling and desalination projects, and technological innovations

* Allowing limited water transfers through the Delta in April and May to make up for reduced deliveries

* Requiring environmental reviews of water transfers to occur with “the shortest practicable time period”

The bill also has provisions that protect water rights. In addition, actions taken under this legislation would have to be consistent with federal environmental laws, the Central Valley Improvement Act, biological opinions, and state law.

“I’ve introduced a lot of bills over the years, and this one may be the most difficult, and a warming climate will only make things worse. For months now my staff and I have held meetings with many interested parties. My state staff has visited almost 50 water agencies, and my Washington staff has consulted closely with federal agencies to ensure the bill adheres to environmental laws. I think the bill we’re introducing today can achieve broad congressional and public support and will be a great help to California,” said Senator Feinstein.

Because the meetings with interested parties were held privately, they did spur concerns among some leaders in Arizona who feared the bill might include provisions allowing California to take a portion of Arizona’s Colorado River allocation.

An article appearing in the Arizona Daily Star about a month before the bill was introduced cites concern that federal action would be used to make such a reallocation as common ground between Governor Doug Ducey (R–AZ) and Representative Raúl Grijalva (D–AZ). Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton was also reported as ready to fend off California in defense of Arizona’s water. (“Is California trying to take our water?,” Arizona Daily Star June 27, 2015).

The article also cites water experts from outside of Arizona, who weighed in arguing that their concerns are spurious or worse.

Representatives from the academic and environmental communities note the opposition California would face if legislation of that nature was proposed.  Doug Kenney, Director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School, notes that there would be a disrupting impact throughout the west and that other states would side with Arizona. Likewise, Joan Clayburgh, Director of Communications for Western Resource Advocates, and Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director for Environmental Defense Fund, indicate that the environmental community would be ready to stand against a California move on Arizona’s water.

Pitt also noted the gains made in the Colorado River Basin due to cooperation and said, “Creating winners and losers threatens that progress.”

The biggest reaction came from Pat Mulroy—Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy at UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West, and former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Mulroy reportedly said it was “ludicrous” to think that California could undo what it has taken agreement among seven states and federal legislation to do and noted that the Arizona officials have not offered any evidence for their concerns.

A subsequent article published on June 28th follows on with an explanation that the 1922 Colorado River Compact likely would have to be amended for California to take another state’s water. (“Nevada water leader blasts Arizonans’ anti-California rhetoric,” Arizona Daily Star June 28, 2015).

“Look the compact is a contract— approved by 7 Legislatures, signed by 7 Governors, ratified by Congress and signed by the President.  Then the Supreme Court of this country set the Lower Basin allocations.  To think that no matter how large a Congressional delegation is that they can upset that is ludicrous.  This pathway is one that leads nowhere but to mutual destruction,” said Mulroy.

Mulroy also chastised Arizona officials for efforts to cooperate and solve problems in the basin, saying:

Those discussions still have to happen and for Arizona to beat the war drums going into those discussions will drive even the moderate voices in California into the bunker. Every one of these pronouncements does nothing but hurt Arizona because it hardens positions. Right now it would be key to find ways to work with California to develop a strategy that would avoid the system crashing. If we keep this rhetoric up we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the river resembles the situation in California.

Remember when Mead drops below 900 there won’t be any water going to Lake Havasu either and everyone in Arizona and California is in trouble. Whatever paper water right someone has won’t be worth the paper it is written on. So on any number of levels this fight is counter-productive. The key is finding a common solution that everyone can survive. Put the bogeyman back in the closet.

Feinstein’s bill focuses on Central Valley Project and Delta actions and operations, storage, desalination, conservation and reuse. Because it does not give much attention to the Colorado River Basin, only authorizing an NAS study of the water supply improvements and environmental impacts of salt cedar control—and does not include a reallocation of Arizona’s Colorado River water to California—the fears of a water grab have been dispelled.


Written by Marta L. Weismann