On Wednesday, February 10, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (Dem.-California) introduced a draft bill with the explicit purpose to “provide short-term water supplies to drought-stricken California and provide for long-term investments in drought resiliency throughout the Western United States.”  Entitled, “California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act” (hereinafter “bill”), the 184-page bill lays out mandates for the use of funds for water projects, water infrastructure improvements and storage, emergency drought relief, and protection of listed and endangered species.

Technology and financing for water supply and re-use are also focuses of the bill. Notably, the bill supports the use of desalination and water recycling.  With regard to desalination, the bill identifies 26 desalination projects throughout California that are capable of producing more than 330,000 acre-feet of water per year.  The bill proposes adding long-term funding to support desalination projects.  In addition, the bill recognizes the need for conservation and water re-use by authorizing the expenditure of $200 million in funds for the Bureau of Reclamation’s water recycling and reuse program.  This money would be used to fund projects to reclaim and reuse wastewaters and naturally impaired ground and surface water.

This bill – with all of its support and criticism – represents the ongoing debate in the California water world: fish versus farms. The elusive balance between environmental and human consumptive needs continues, with the complexities of the law and science coming down to the question of:  To what extent should water supplies protect the fish and other species and habitat that depend on the water supplies given ongoing human needs which obviously includes water to irrigate farms?  Critics of the bill argue that it does not adequately protect environmental interests because the bill would authorize increased pumping from the Delta to the federal Central Valley Project and to the State Water Project, which in turn they argue could harm fish runs and species’ ecosystems, including salmon and the Delta Smelt.  Further, environmentalists often oppose desalination projects due to the process’s impact on ocean species.  Others, including farmers, on the other hand, appear to generally support the bill.  California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger expressed his endorsement of the bill, and stated that “California’s water system must be improved to accommodate our people, our environment and our economy.

It seems that Feinstein’s latest bill – her third time introducing California drought legislation in two years – attempts to strike a balance. The bill states that its purpose is “to facilitate the movement of water to communities most in need while adhering to all environmental laws.”  The bill contains a hefty section of findings, citing to figures and data demonstrating all the ways that the drought is effecting Californians, from wells going dry to loss in crop revenue.  Perhaps the substantial quantitative data will move Congress.  Stay tuned for updates on this bill and other drought legislation in Congress.