A dominant theme washing over Capitol Hill in the waning days of the session centers on how Congress can effectively address the diverse and legitimate needs of the many Western States confronting historic drought and water issues. There are nearly two-dozen legislative proposals from both Democrats and Republicans tackling everything from the EPA’s “Waters of the U.S” regulations and carbon-reduction rules to drought relief for farmers and ranchers affecting many Western states.
Drought in Washington and across the West have caused billions of dollars in impacts and are predicted to cost billions more in the coming years.
Our elected officials have taken notice.
Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA-4) is making it his priority to facilitate the construction of new dams and reservoirs to increase Washington’s water storage capacity by introducing the Bureau of Reclamation Surface Water Storage Streamlining Act of 2015.
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is pushing the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act, which provides an integrated approach to addressing water management in Washington’s Yakima Basin. As the Yakima Basin faces continued drought and climate impacts, the federal government has a responsibility to act now to prevent future impacts and costs in meeting its legal responsibilities in the basin.
This summer California Rep. David Valadao (R-CA-21) and 25 bipartisan co-sponsors — including Newhouse and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO-3) — introduced HR 2898, a drought relief bill that would benefit Washington, as well as California and our other Western states. It passed in the House, but was coldly received by the Senate, even though many knew that California senator Dianne Feinstein contributed to its provisions.
California Senators Feinstein and Barbara Boxer responded with an alternative, a bill that would grab $1.3 billion in federal funds for California; 12 environmental activist groups helped Feinstein and Boxer draft their measure. While these senators command respect, their bill would do little for Washington and other Western states. Rather, it would simply help expand California’s environmental mandates to our state and many others.
We need much more than that.
By some estimates more than 93 million Americans are now impacted by the Western drought. At least twelve western states are falling victim to drought conditions and receiving USDA drought relief: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. The impact of the drought ripples across the nation, which has a vested interest in food prices, the security of our food supply and the economy at large.
With over 92% of all federally owned lands located in the West, Americans are growing concerned about impacts on national parks and national forests. After all, issues concerning water, air and other natural resources cross state lines from coast to coast.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ response was to sensibly bundle its Western States package of measures into a comprehensive regional plan to address drought rather than dedicate federal funds to a single state’s crisis. A comprehensive package solves many states’ problems rather than dealing with them piecemeal.
As important as California is, and despite its historic drought crisis, a California-centric approach is myopic and unfair. The federal government must take ownership and responsibility for untangling the unwieldy web of local, state and federal government regulations that control the West’s water.
The drought is regional; it’s bigger than California and any fix should address the needs of the West, not just one state. Senators Feinstein and Boxer know that. The sooner congressional delegations across the West all band together and start treating the water crisis as an American issue of national importance, it helps our state of Washington, the West, and the nation — and that includes California.
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