Politics & Government

California lawmakers seek to exempt water projects from key law

WASHINGTON — Central Valley water projects would be exempt from a key environmental law under a controversial measure introduced by rural California lawmakers.

The bill authored by freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, would permit water projects to be built without completing the federal environmental studies that have been required since 1970. The bill also would make it harder to challenge projects in court.

"Central Valley farmers are in need of water now," Denham said Tuesday. "My bill eliminates redundant bureaucratic red tape to speed up project delivery and save taxpayer dollars."

Legislatively, the bill introduced without fanfare Friday has a long way to go. It likely faces stern resistance both in the Senate and from the Obama administration, as well as from House members leery of letting big California projects avoid federal law.

Though Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Atwater supports the bill, neither of the state's two Democratic senators were brought on board. That usually complicates things. The Democratic-controlled Senate, moreover, has been skeptical of past efforts to exempt projects from the National Environmental Policy Act.

In February 2009, for instance, a Wyoming senator sought to exempt certain projects funded by a big stimulus bill. He failed. This history suggests the CVP exemption bill is a long shot, at least in its current form.

"It strikes us as fairly reckless," said Cynthia Koehler, California water issues director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "It certainly should not become law."

Still, lawmakers in recent years have periodically streamlined or waived the environmental law requirements for certain timber harvests, grazing permits, Navy sonar tests and high-priority transportation projects, among other federal activities.

Politically, moreover, the bill marks the latest expression of Central Valley discontent over environmental laws in general and water shortages in particular. Three other Valley lawmakers, including House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, joined Denham and Cardoza in introducing the bill.

"A duplicative federal review process is unnecessary and can be eliminated to save time and taxpayer dollars, because California's environmental review process alone is sufficient enough to protect the environment," Denham said.

Rural lawmakers have long contended excessive regulations impede construction of dams and canals and restrict the delivery of irrigation water. Until now, they usually have targeted the Endangered Species Act. However, congressional Republicans failed to roll back that law during the 16 years of the Clinton and Bush presidencies.

Signed by President Richard Nixon in January 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act is most famous for its requirement that officials study the environmental impact of major federal actions.

Each year, an average of 255 major environmental impact statements and many more of smaller environmental assessments are completed. The major studies take an average of 3.4 years, according to a 2008 study by Salisbury University scientists.

In July 2006, for instance, officials announced plans to study an "intertie" pipeline connecting the Delta Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct. Forty months later, it was done. Currently, a federal study is underway as part of the massive effort to restore the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Under Denham's bill, Central Valley Project work would no longer need such federal studies but still need environmental studies required under California state law.

Legal challenges would be constrained, and judges would lose some power to stop projects.