Expanding California’s San Luis Reservoir may present a “great opportunity for increasing water supplies,” a key Obama administration official said Tuesday.
But building a bunch of big new dams is not a viable solution to the state’s present drought emergency, Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor warned lawmakers.
“There are fundamental questions about the economic viability of some of these larger projects,” Connor told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, adding that “at times, we get bogged down on the larger projects.”
Joined by Los Banos, Calif.-area farmer Cannon Michael and other witnesses, Connor spent two hours Tuesday morning illuminating the drought that has afflicted Western states while it has stymied members of Congress. There are few easy federal solutions, all agreed.
Even Connor’s nod to a possible San Luis Reservoir expansion, which by some estimates could add 130,000 acre-feet to the reservoir’s current capacity of 2.04 million acre-feet, has its shortcomings, thirsty farmers fear.
“If you can’t move the water, what’s the point?” asked Michael, president of Bowles Farming Co.
Michael is a sixth-generation California farmer, and representative of the Family Farm Alliance, an Oregon-based advocacy group for western growers. On Tuesday, he articulated the human cost of the drought. He noted that he has already fallowed one-quarter of his farm acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley because of water shortages, and he said more may be necessary.
“If I leave an acre fallow, my workers have less work and I use my tractors less,” Michael testified. “If I use my tractor less, I buy less fuel, lubricants and parts and tires, which means the local businesses that supply these things sell less and their companies suffer.”
The Senate hearing was the first congressional examination of the California drought this year, and the standing room-only session amounted to an ad hoc Western water convention. Two former congressmen-turned-lobbyists, Dennis Cardoza of California and Dennis Rehberg of Montana, monitored the action from the audience.
Rehberg represents the Westlands Water District, whose general manager Tom Birmingham was also taking in the action from the back of the third-floor room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Lobbyists for farmers served by Friant Dam, on the San Joaquin Valley’s east side, sat several rows ahead of long-time environmental advocates.
The big question, for all, is whether Congress will legislate. Last year, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill that was opposed by Northern California lawmakers and the Brown administration in Sacramento. The measure died in the Senate.
This year, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said Tuesday, the approach will be different.
“It’s important that we have something that passes,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “This is bigger than just California, (so) we’re going to try to build a broader Western water package.”
She already has some motivated Western colleagues.
Drought conditions classified as “extreme” now extend to much of Oregon and pockets of Utah and Idaho, Congressional Research Service natural resources specialist Betsy A. Cody told the panel, while almost 47 percent of the land area in California is experiencing the most serious category of “exceptional” drought. Moderate to severe drought conditions prevail in Arizona and Washington.
“The Department of the Interior views this as an all-hands effort,” Connor said.
Underscoring the heightened attention, Murkowski noted Tuesday that she visited a Fresno, Calif.-area orchard several months ago and saw “whole fields of beautiful citrus trees that were literally bulldozed over because there was no water.” Another committee member, independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, said he was in California in April and was “shocked to see” how low reservoirs had fallen.
Neither of California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, serve on the Resources panel and did attend the hearing. Feinstein had been quietly trying to craft a bill earlier this year, with some hoping it could be ready for discussion Tuesday. For now, it appears stalled.
“If anybody comes up with an idea that goes back to the same old arguments of decades and decades of water wars, they ought to learn that it’s a new time,” Boxer told reporters Tuesday. “It’s a new paradigm and we have to work together.”
In the House, Democrats led by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., have cobbled together an 118-page draft water bill currently being circulated for discussion. Covering areas like recycling, conservation and planning, it emphasizes different priorities than the approach typically favored by Republicans.
The timing of the House GOP’s drought bill, and its precise contours, remain under wraps. On Tuesday, Murkowski pointedly said she had expected to see it by now.