Mar 17, 2016 | News Alert

Ag Groups urge Murkowski to advance legislation

Debra Kahn, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, March 17, 2016

A big group of Western farming interests is pressing Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to take up legislation dealing with the region’s ongoing drought.

A coalition of more than 100 farming groups from 12 states sent a letter this week to Murkowski, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), asking them to work on a bill that can be passed by the House.

The groups sent a similar letter in October, before drought negotiations between the House and Senate collapsed at the end of 2015 over disagreements on environmental protections (Greenwire, Dec. 11, 2015).

“[W]e must see Congress act this year in order to begin the process of modernizing our Western water systems to help us meet future hydrologic challenges,” wrote the groups, led by the California Farm Bureau Federation, Family Farm Alliance and Western Growers Association. “While election years bring political challenges, our collective objective is for a bicameral product to be signed into law before the end of the year.”

The letter didn’t specify which legislation the groups preferred but cited the need for “more flexibility” under environmental laws, as well as streamlined federal permitting and federal financing for water storage projects.

“Currently, several bills are under consideration in the Senate committee, including a West-wide bill already passed by the House of Representatives,” the groups said. “All that remains is for the Senate to act.” Rep. David Valadao’s (R-Calif.) H.R. 2898 passed the House in July; it would loosen environmental restrictions and raise the bar for how much water should be pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to parched agricultural communities in the Central Valley and municipalities farther south.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) latest bill, S. 2533, introduced last month, would invest $1.3 billion in defined, long-term projects as well as short-term operational changes for the drought. It instructs the Interior Department to try to increase pumping in California’s main water hub, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, to take advantage of winter rainstorms, and would provide grants and loans to desalination plants and water recycling projects.

“The time to act is now,” said California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger. “Although several Western states, including California, are currently experiencing welcomed precipitation due to El NiƱo, we are not under the false illusion that the drought has ended. Every effort must be made to capture the benefits of the recent storms while ensuring our collective resiliency in the face of future droughts.”

Lawmakers have asked federal officials in recent hearings whether Feinstein’s bill would increase water deliveries, with varying responses. Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Director David Murillo told the House Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee that it likely wouldn’t increase deliveries this year, while Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor testified to the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on March 2 that it would increase supplies during the current drought (E&E Daily, Feb. 25).

A Murkowski spokesman said there is no markup scheduled yet on Feinstein’s bill.