Executive Summary for December 4th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary, including the most important stories, analysis and data. Our goal is to keep you informed of the day’s most significant events in the field.

Published on Dec. 4, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Please: Less Regulation, More Money

The Western Governors Association has shared a wish list of water reforms with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The simple version reads like this: Send more money, cut red tape.

The letter came in response to an Oct. 8 hearing by the committee on six water bills, including competing measures by California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. David Valadao, both of them controversial.

The goal was to encourage the committee members to review some tools that are already working in western states that could be applied across the region to build resiliency in water systems, said Laura Chartrand, water policy advisor for the governors’ association, which represents 19 western states, including California.

“The biggest challenge is how to affordably and effectively create flexibility in our water system,” Chartrand told Capital Press.

Key actions sought by the governors include:

  • Avoid additional Endangered Species Act listings of “water dependent” wildlife.
  • Adequately fund Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act revolving funds.
  • Remove federal caps on state bonding for water projects and guarantee tax-exempt status on such bonds.
  • Streamline hydropower project relicensing; reduce regulation of recycled water projects.
  • Fund research into new water-conservation strategies.
  • Improve predictive capability for extreme weather events, and data gathering on snowpack and streamflow.

Altogether, none of this is surprising or innovative — or even usefully specific. And it’s not likely to help the Senate come to grips with controversial and complicated water legislation.

One piece of the proposal, however, shows promise: The governors want additional federal resources to assess and manage water issues at the watershed level. This hearkens back to the innovative ideas of John Wesley Powell, the Western explorer and visionary.

Way back in the 1870s, as chief of the U.S. Geological Survey, Powell proposed setting government and land-management boundaries in Western states according to natural watershed boundaries, not arbitrary political lines. These ideas were rejected, and water and land ever since have been fought over across bureaucratic boundaries that make no sense ecologically.

More than 140 years later, are the governors beginning to embrace Powell’s ideas? One can only hope.

Flexibility Ahead in New Conservation Mandates?

California officials will be revising the water conservation mandates to be imposed on urban utilities next year. It looks like they’ll be trying to build in more flexibility to help agencies comply.

That’s what you get from reading between the lines of a speech delivered by Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, at a meeting of the Association of California Water Agencies this week in Indian Wells.

She declined to reveal specifics, but hinted that flexibility is the goal.

“I don’t wrap myself in the flag about what we did,” Marcus said, according to the The Desert Sun newspaper. “I think someone had to make a choice, and we made a choice. I’d like to take a shot at fixing it as much as we can, so that it’s intelligible, it’s more fair, people feel heard.”

In particular, many agencies felt they should be exempt from conservation mandates because they invested millions of dollars to develop their own water supplies, effectively making them independent from imported water that affects other regions of the state.

Others complained their conservation mandates were too great, in part because they did not account for hotter microclimates in which landscaping demands more water.

“We’ve gone through a period of blaming,” Marcus said in a separate interview with KNTV News. “But it doesn’t solve anything and the fact is we are more interconnected than we think.”

Marcus said the concerns would be considered going into 2016, but added that individualized rules are difficult to implement in a complicated and deeply intertwined state water system, especially during a drought emergency.

“We’ll try and figure out how to do as much of this as we can,” she said.

One luminary at the conference had no complaints about California’s water conservation efforts.

“It’s an incredible demonstration of working together,” said former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Top image: John Wesley Powell, speaking with a Paiute Indian during one of his explorations of the Grand Canyon region in 1873, had visionary ideas about water management in the West. Are governors starting to see the light? (Smithsonian Institution)

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