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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

H.R. 1837—The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act

Betsy A. Cody
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

For most of the last 20 years, some water contractors in California have received less than their full contract water supplies from federal and state facilities. Although such allocations are in part the result of the prior appropriation doctrine in western water law and are consistent with the expectation of a “junior” water user in times of drought, tensions over water delivery reliability have been exacerbated by reductions in deliveries even in non-drought years. Such reductions are significant because much of the California urban and agricultural economy operates under junior water rights, and reductions in water allocations can cause significant disruption and economic loss for individual farmers and communities, particularly in drought years. At the same time, fish populations throughout the Central Valley of California have dramatically declined due to water diversions and other factors, and have been accompanied by significant losses for fishing communities and others dependent on fish and wildlife resources. The state and federal governments have been working to address water supply reliability and ecosystem issues through pursuit of a Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP); however, the plan is not complete and remains controversial.

On February 16, 2012, the House Natural Resources Committee ordered reported H.R. 1837, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act. Proponents of H.R. 1837 argue that implementation of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992 (CVPIA) and state and federal environmental laws (e.g., the federal Endangered Species Act and its state equivalent) have compounded the impact of drought on water deliveries; the bill is designed to remedy these effects. Others argue that the bill would harm the environment and resource-dependent local economies, particularly coastal communities. Some also argue that it would undermine efforts to resolve environmental and water supply reliability issues through development of the BDCP.

At issue for Congress is the extent to which the bill changes decades of federal and state law, including state and federal environmental laws, and at what benefit and cost. For example, there are tradeoffs embedded in the bill’s preemption of state water law, including fish and wildlife protections, as a means to increase the water deliveries to some irrigation contractors and municipalities. It appears these changes likely would most benefit water contractors in the southern portion of the CVP service area, but might harm others and potentially reduce environmental protections and improvements and the services and industries they support (e.g., recreational and fishing industries). What impact such tradeoffs might have on other stakeholders is unclear. H.R. 1837 would preempt “any” (including state and federal) law pertaining to operation of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and California’s State Water Project (SWP) and substitute for those laws operational principles from a 1994 interim agreement, originally supported by many diverse parties, known as the Bay-Delta Accord. The bill also addresses other California water management issues, making significant changes to the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act and allowing early repayment of CVP construction cost obligations.

While much attention has been paid to the effects of federal and state environmental laws on reductions in water supplies south of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers delta confluence with San Francisco Bay (Bay-Delta, or Delta), the extent to which the bill would relieve water supply shortages, particularly in drought years, is uncertain. For example, many factors affect pumping restrictions and the overall water allocation regime for CVP contractors. The federal ESA and CVPIA are only two factors in the regime. Other key factors include state water quality regulations (particularly flow and salinity requirements in the Delta), SWP pumping, and state water rights. How H.R. 1837 would in practice affect these factors remains uncertain.

Date of Report: February 29, 2012
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: R42375
Price: $29.95

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