After years of drought, the state of California is bracing for water. Lots of it. Maybe even a rerun of the havoc caused by the failure of the Oroville Dam this winter.
As the record snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains begin to melt, there’s concern this spring and summer that the state will have more water than it can handle.
Earlier this year, heavy winter rains forced evacuations near the Oroville Dam, where repairs are now underway on the damaged flood-control spillway.
Congress is trying to help manage such drastic shifts in California’s water levels. Thursday, the House plans a vote on legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., that aims to help the state capture more of that water to save for a future dry season. The bill is expected to pass the House. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is pushing a similar bill in the Senate.
“Five years of drought in California concluded with the wettest year on record, nature’s way of reminding us that if we don’t store water in wet years, we won’t have it during dry ones – and the economic and social devastation this causes can be immense,” McClintock said in a statement to the House Natural Resources Committee in April.
McClintock’s bill would streamline the process for building dams and reservoirs by having the federal Bureau of Reclamation serve as a “one stop shop,” coordinating between federal agencies that oversee water storage projects to speed up the process.
According to a House committee memo, many federal agencies are not currently required to coordinate their permits and approvals with each other, which McClintock said has led to a “Byzantine maze of regulations.”
“After years spent trying to satisfy one agency, another suddenly pops up to claim jurisdiction with an entirely new set of demands in an often endless permitting process despite the fact they are studying the same project, in the same location with the same data,” McClintock said.
The bill would also allow local water agencies to put up the money for the federal review process if the federal agencies themselves don’t have the funds.
The bill would apply to projects on land managed by the federal government, which could impact plans to raise the Shasta Dam and expand the San Luis Reservoir.
The bill has bipartisan backing. House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted his support Tuesday morning, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., backed it in a committee vote.
“It is this simple: without reliable water supplies communities are destroyed. ... One tool to create more reliable water supplies is to increase water storage, and this legislation will help streamline the process for building additional water storage facilities,” Costa said in a statement.
But the bill has raised concerns among environmentalists.
“It’s kind of like the one ring made by Sauron. One ring to rule them all,” said Ron Stork, policy director for Friends of the River, a non-profit conservation organization in Sacramento, referencing the villain from the Lord of the Rings. “You’re handing (the Bureau of Reclamation) the one ring.”
Stork said the Bureau of Reclamation is a “dam-friendly federal agency” and that the bill would hamper the ability of other agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to conduct proper environmental reviews of dam proposals.
“The whole purpose is to make sure that the environmental responsibilities traditionally assumed by these agencies is undercut,” Stork said.
Proponents say the bill does not skirt any environmental regulations, but makes the process easier to navigate.
“This does not bypass ANY environmental laws – it simply says that the process needs to be more efficient and that government agencies should talk with each other and not past each other,” McClintock said.
Contact: Anshu Siripurapu @anshusiripurapu 202-383-6009