Costa Introduces Drought Relief Legislation

Washington, DC — Rep. Jim Costa introduced emergency legislation that will help maximize available resources and assist farmers and communities during this historically dry year. According to some estimates this legislation has the potential to generate more than 500,000 acre-feet for water agencies that receive water from the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

The California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 is the House companion to a bill introduced earlier today by California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. California Representatives Tony Cardenas and Sam Farr were original co-sponsors of the House bill.

“This catastrophic drought and our long-standing water battles strike the heart of my district’s economy and impacts every family that calls the Valley home,” said Costa. “When I look at these devastating weather and snowpack reports, I see the faces of farm workers who could lose their jobs and their children who might be forced to leave school. For these people, there is no option but swift action on our bill that will remove the barriers that prevent limited resources from reaching those most in need.”

“While a long-term solution is past due, our past water fights must not get in the way of a united response to this crisis.”

With record low storage after 3 consecutive dry years, California is left with fewer options to mitigate the impact of this year’s drought. Within the next 30 to 60 days, 17 water agencies forecast that they will not be able to provide drinking water to their communities.

Costa’s legislation aims to expedite the use of federal flexibility under the law to address emergency conditions in the state. By cutting red-tape, this bill will yield immediate water for farmers and communities in the San Joaquin Valley once enacted. The bill would also authorize $300 million for disaster assistance programs.

Key provisions in the bill:

  • Provides federal authorization and orders the Interior and Commerce Departments to cooperate with a California Water Resources Board plan to keep the Delta Cross Channel Gates open as long as possible to allow more water to be delivered without endangering migrating salmon. This action is expected to save thousands of acre feet of water from upstream reservoirs each month this spring;
  • Mandates that federal agencies use flexibility under existing law to maximize water supplies using Delta pumping. Under the Delta smelt biological opinion, which is required by the Endangered Species Act, pumping that results in “reverse flows” of water between -1,250 and -5,000 cubic-feet-per-second is permitted for the Old and Middle Rivers between December and June. This “reverse flow” occurs when the state and federal water pumps are turned on to draw water from the rivers into the South Delta for water users. The bill requires federal agencies to operate the pumps within this range to maximize water supplies while remaining consistent with the biological opinion and the Endangered Species Act;
  • Directs the Department of the Interior to maintain in April and May a 1:1 “inflow-to-export ratio” for San Joaquin River flows that result from water transfers and exchanges. This means water districts willing to sell or trade surplus supplies to districts with less water can move 100 percent of that surplus water through the Delta instead of just a fraction. This will also allow greater water transfers if California receives additional rain.
  • Amends the Stafford Act to provide additional individual emergency assistance for major droughts when a state of emergency declaration is made by the president;
  • Authorizes additional expenditures above existing funding caps for the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act (from $90 million to $190 million) and the WaterSMART program (from $200 million to $250 million). These programs channel funds to water projects that can lead to increased water supplies;
  • Prioritize WaterSMART grants to provide emergency water supplies to communities at risk of losing access to water sufficient to meet basic public health and safety needs; to prevent the loss of permanent crops; and to minimize economic damage caused by the drought;
  • Mandates that the federal government issue final decisions for projects and operations that can provide additional water supply benefits within 10 days of a request from the state;
  • Authorizes funding for federal agencies to develop other water sources, such as groundwater wells and water purchases, for Central Valley Project wildlife refuges so that surface water saved can be used for drinking water and crops;
  • Authorizes water planning and management activities to reduce water use in the Klamath Basin;
  • Extends the period during which water contractors can take deliveries of 2013 water from February 28 to April 15, allowing them more flexibility to manage their 2014 supplies; and
  • Authorizes contractors facing economic hardship to delay federal fee payments related to water deliveries.

Funding increases for drought assistance programs:

  • $100 million in emergency funds for Department of the Interior projects to rapidly increase water supplies;
  • $100 million in emergency assistance for farmers to fund water conservation measures that protect lands and sensitive watersheds;
  • $25 million to the Emergency Community Water Assistance Grants program for water conservation projects and to protect and upgrade water systems. These grants of up to $1 million are to complete projects that boost the availability and quality of drinking water, including in California communities at risk of running out of safe drinking water;
  • $25 million for Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grants that fund community projects to reduce harmful effects of the drought;
  • $25 million in grant funding for public and nonprofit institutions to provide emergency assistance to low-income migrant and seasonal farmworkers who are directly harmed by the drought;
  • $25 million in grants for private forest landowners to carry out conservation measures in response to drought and wildlife risks; and
  • Allows the Secretary of Agriculture to help cover losses caused by the drought through the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program.