As the California drought stretches into its fourth year, state officials are being asked to answer a difficult question: who gets water, and who doesn’t?
Throughout the state, that question has led to a mounting tension between farmers and environmentalists, because while agriculture takes up about 40 percent of the state’s water, environmental uses (scenic rivers, maintaining water levels for fish, etc.) require an even higher share, consuming half of California’s supply.
The federal government recently pledged $110 million in emergency funds to help combat dry conditions across the West, but Congressional action has largely been absent from drought solutions. Instead, the drought has become a partisan issue, splitting Republicans and Democrats down party lines when it comes to addressing the drought’s causes and potential solutions.
One California congressman wants to change that to change that. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the Water, Power, and Oceans Subcommittee, is getting ready to introduce a comprehensive bill aimed at combating California’s water problems both in the short-term and in the future — but first, he wants to hear what Californians have to say about it.
“Process matters, especially on something as complex and contentious as Western water,” Huffman told ThinkProgress. “One of the lessons from the last three years is that approaching this crisis with partisan posturing and secretive bills just doesn’t work.”
The bill has already undergone a vetting process from what Huffman refers to as “stakeholders and colleagues,” and now enters a period of public comment before it will be formally introduced.
“Congress has accomplished absolutely zero in the last three years as this crisis has worsened,” he said. “I felt it was important to put forth a new approach with new ideas.”
The bill, Huffman said, places blame neither on endangered fish — a popular scapegoat for those critical of the state’s environmental water use — nor farmers. Instead, it looks at places where the federal government could make a meaningful difference in the way water is used, transported, and stored within California and across the West. It calls for things like new water recycling and reclamation programs, increased stormwater capture and management, and improved data collection for crops.
“The amounts of water that could be generated by this bill dwarf other proposals that we’ve seen,” Huffman said. “And it’s not through any one mega project. It’s through a comprehensive look at a variety of forward leaning strategies.”
California Republicans have offered their own solution to the drought, backing a bill last year proposed by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) that would divert huge amounts of water from environmental uses in the northern part of the state and send it to the Central Valley’s farmers. But California Democrats — like Huffman — worry that such a solution would merely represent a veiled gutting of the Endangered Species Act for the benefit of large agricultural interests.
“There have been some that have suggested that we should … start identifying fish species we could condemn to extinction. That’s not a long term sustainable or responsible approach,” Huffman said. “We’re going to need our environment and our water supply over the long haul.”
In the face of climate change — which scientists predict will lead to more frequent and severe droughts in the future — Huffman sees his bill as a chance to rethink California’s water use in a way that increases resiliency for the future. But he also sees the bill as a chance for Republicans to take a different approach to Western drought and water problems.
“This bill is going to test the prevailing presumption that even good ideas from Democrats can’t see the light of day in this Congress,” Huffman said. “I’m going to ask my Republican colleagues if they care enough about drought to give me a hearing, and we’re going to make sure the whole world is watching as they answer that question.”