California drought: House GOP bill would speed up environmental reviews

Morris Dam on the San Gabriel River, as viewed from highway CA-39.
Morris Dam on the San Gabriel River, as viewed from highway CA-39.

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As negotiations over compromise drought legislation flounder in Congress, House Republicans are floating an alternate way to get reservoirs built: a bill that fast tracks environmental reviews.

The newest measure surfaced late last week and will get a hearing Wednesday in the Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee. Subcommittee chairman, Republican Tom McClintock, who represents a district east of Sacramento, says the bill’s purpose is to get the Bureau of Reclamation back to its original mission, "which is to build dams to store water in wet years so that we have plenty in dry years." He says one of the biggest problems is environmental regulations that cause "infinite delays" for environmental studies.

The bill sets a shorter deadline for environmental reports. Patricia Schifferle from the California group, Pacific Advocates says that short window takes federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service out of the equation. For example, she says, the EPA would not have had time to do the research that led to last month's EPA’s opinion that California’s twin tunnels program was “legally deficient” and could violate the Clean Water Act.

That shorter time span also limits the public’s ability to sue, she says, and also allows "non-federal interests" to do their own feasibility studies - and even get taxpayer credits for doing them. Those non-federal interests would include mega-water districts like the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, which spent $600,000 last year on lobbying Capitol Hill and federal agencies.

Democrats on the subcommittee, like Tony Cardenas of the San Fernando Valley, say it’s a delicate balance: how to make progress on infrastructure projects without short-circuiting environmental reviews. Cardenas says he's been "open to, and at times been willing to support" shorter, more "realistic" timelines for environmental reviews, as long as they don't "short change" the process. He says reviews can "drag on for years sometimes."

McClintock says droughts are nature’s fault, but he says California hasn’t built a major reservoir in California since 1979. "And the population’s nearly doubled in the meantime." He says the bill’s chances are “very good” on the House side; less certain in the Senate. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who heads the Environment and Public Works Committee, says she hasn't yet read the measure.