Eye on Washington: June 2020

Dan Sealy, Legislative Analyst 

California Water Wars Forever

As spring moves to summer, the perpetual water concerns of the West rise in level perhaps near that of the Coronavirus crisis.  Currently the drought monitor for California shows all of Northern California in a state of Abnormally Dry to Extreme Drought conditions. Congress has not stopped discussing and legislating water projects in California, from raising dam heights and shoring up irrigation canals to funding desalination plants.  In campaign speeches, then-candidate Trump promised California farmers more water.  Now President Trump has worked with agriculture and water-suppliers to push forward as many water projects as possible, often at the expense of endangered species and the environment in general. The issue came to a stand-off in February when the Trump administration finalized biological opinions on salmon and the critically endangered delta smelt to accommodate additional water being taken from the Sacramento Delta. In May, California Governor Newsom responded by taking the administration to court over those biological opinions. California also made a determination for the State Water Project under California’s endangered species law and found that the Trump Administration’s analysis falls short of protecting the species.  That analysis is more restrictive of exports, though environmentalists say it, too, falls short. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner, Brenda Burman, responded for Interior Secretary Bernhardt in a letter to Senators Feinstein and Harris attempting to create a political stand-off by accusing Gov. Newsom of “embrace(ing) the tactics of the litigious groups (i.e. conservation organizations) at the expense of families, farms, communities and wildlife…”  and indicating that the federal government would continue to move forward with their projects. 

In related congressional committees, bills are moving slightly to increase desalination (using sea water or brackish estuary water) to make fresh drinking water in drought-prone Southern California. Desalination projects are generally opposed by conservation organizations because of the ecological impacts to the process. However, in March a House Natural Resources Committee hearing got feisty when Rep. Levin (D-CA) defended his bill, HR 3723, the “Desalination Development Act.” His one cosponsor, currently, is our own Rep. Huffman; both men have a strong record of environmental protection, so support for desalination plants is somewhat unexpected. Opposing the bill are two congressmen who have a long history of opposing the federal government and supporting dam-building and weakening environmental laws, Rep. McClintock (R-CA) and Bishop (R-UT.)  What does this have to do with the North Coast? In this case, Rep. McClintock fears funding the desalination plant would be at the expense of his long-desired increases  in dams on northern rivers such as Shasta Dam to further twin-tunnel and other water projects that rob the northern region of water that sustains the river ecosystems and feeds the local fishing communities. The San Diego Coastkeeper opposes the desalination project and suggested alternatives such as conservation, wastewater recycling and stormwater capture to better meet the needs of the San Diego area. 

Legislation directed at funding water infrastructure projects including harbor dredging and maintenance and related bills for clean drinking water are progressing through committees and have a chance at passage this year.   

Good News for Renewable Energy

With strong bipartisan support, specifically that of Sen Grassley (R- IA), the US Treasury Department indicated it would extend the tax incentives for renewable energy developers. It wrote that the Department “plans to modify the relevant rules in the near future.”  Greg Wetstone, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said his group was “encouraged” by the letter and extended “our appreciation to the Treasury Department for this important step, which will help the renewable sector continue as a key economic driver through this downturn, and an effective climate solution over the long haul.” (eenews May 8, 2020) 

Keystone Pipeline Delay 

In other good news, a judge in Montana issued a decision that the Keystone Pipeline developer’s permit is on hold until developers engage in the interagency consultation required under the Endangered Species Act. That process can result in up to a year or so of delay which, depending on the outcome of the November, 2020 elections could result in a fresh look at the project by a different administration and congress with, perhaps, a different outcome. 

Coming Up

Both the House and Senate will be in session most or parts of June and July and several bills are expected to move forward. The NEC will share alerts for any key legislation activity.