Aug 18, 2015 | Alliance Op/Ed

Setting the stage for Western drought legislation

Lawmakers are talking about ways to manage drought and agriculture should be at the table.

Last month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on drought conditions in the Western U.S. Cannon Michael (Bowles Farming Co., in California’s San Joaquin Valley) testified on behalf of the Family Farm Alliance and was the sole witness representing agriculture at the hearing. The hearing was intended to tee up the drought discussion, anticipating that future hearings will be conducted later this year on federal legislation to address the Western drought crisis.

Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, vowed that any legislation dealing with the drought would consider solutions that could help with west-wide conditions, even though California has been hit the hardest as of lately. With 57% of the West currently experiencing drought, the Chairwoman made it clear that dry conditions were not limited to California. Ranking Member Maria Cantwell D-Wash., remarked that in her state, the mountains have no snow pack in many areas for the first time ever, with 70% of the State’s streamflows running well below normal, setting many records. She said drought impacts in the Yakima River Basin are estimated to reach $1.2 billion in crop losses, and the summer wildfire season is looming large with dry conditions in the state.

The hearing addressed several themes on conflicts over water during drought, especially in California due to the struggle between the water needs of endangered fish and the farming community in the agricultural Central Valley of the State.

Managing flows

Chairwoman Murkowski questioned whether the fisheries were benefiting from Federal and state agency allocation of scarce water flows and whether the Department of the Interior even had the data to show such benefits. Deputy Secretary Connor said that Interior was collecting better data on species conditions, and that data has allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve increased flexibility to operate the Central Valley Project under the Bureau of Reclamation’s Endangered Species Act incidental take permit. Mr. Michael’s testimony noted that, five years ago, reservoirs in California were brim full of water. Since then, much of that stored water – which had previously supplied Central Valley farms for decades – has been allowed to flow out the Golden Gate by federal fisheries agencies, with no apparent benefit for the fish species it is intended to protect.

Cannon Michael sought to illustrate the problems Western farmers and ranchers face due to the current drought, outline what producers like him and other Westerners are doing to address these challenges, and provide policy recommendations that the Family Farm Alliance believes lay the foundation for effectively addressing drought challenges in the Western U.S. These recommendations boiled down to finding ways to streamline permitting required to develop new water storage projects and seeking to improve water management through regulatory flexibility.

Chairwoman Murkowski concluded the hearing by stating that the West may be experiencing a “new normal” in current drought conditions and that we should be preparing for that reality. This year, you will see federal legislation intended to do just that.