CSAC Bulletin Article

Federal Update:
Water, Drought, Energy, Budget

May 12, 2016

Following a one week recess, lawmakers in both chambers returned to the nation’s capital looking to find common ground and bipartisan support for legislation to address the opioid addiction epidemic, the Puerto Rican debt crisis, and supplemental funding to combat the spread of the Zika virus.  In addition, congressional leaders looked to make progress on the fiscal year 2017 budget front. 

In the Senate, lawmakers approved on May 12 the chamber’s Energy and Water (E&W) Development spending bill.  The measure, which had been delayed for several weeks over a controversial amendment pertaining to the Iran nuclear agreement, would provide $37.5 billion in funding for the Department of Energy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and several independent agencies.

With regard to the ongoing drought, the legislation includes $100 million for various Western drought-relief programs and activities.  Championed by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the funds would build upon the $100 million that was included for various drought-response programs as part of the fiscal year 2016 omnibus spending law.

The bill also directs the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior to use all of the flexibility at their disposal to mitigate the impacts of the drought.  Specifically, the Committee Report accompanying the spending legislation (S Rept. 114-236) directs Reclamation to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and relevant state agencies to undertake comprehensive, real-time monitoring of drought conditions and their impact on endangered species and rely upon the best available science when managing export pumping rates.  The Report also instructs Reclamation to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand efforts to supply small rural communities with water during the current drought.

In addition, the measure includes language that would prevent the Corps from making any changes to the definition of “fill material” and “discharge of fill material” for purposes of the Clean Water Act (CWA).  However, it would not prevent the Agency from spending any funds to implement the Obama administration’s controversial “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule.  During floor consideration, Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) offered an amendment to defund any activities related to WOTUS, but it failed to garner the requisite 60 votes needed for approval.

With the E&W measure receiving final approval in the Senate, the chamber is now expected to turn its attention to the fiscal year 2017 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (THUD) and Military Construction spending bills.

Federal Budget

Across Capitol Hill, support is building among the House Republican conference to combine a fiscal year 2017 budget resolution with a package of changes to mandatory spending programs that would save $30 billion over the next two years and more than $150 billion over the next decade.  Under the plan, the budget would not take effect unless the spending cuts were passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by the president.  This remains a key demand of conservatives who opposed the $30 billion increase in discretionary spending that was included as part of last fall’s budget deal (PL 114-74).  However, at this point, it is unclear if the latest proposal can garner enough votes to pass the House.  Even if it does advance, the Senate is unlikely to approve such a package, and President Obama would undoubtedly veto the bill.

It should be noted that in the absence of a final resolution, and in accordance with modern budgeting rules, the lower chamber can begin consideration of its spending bills after May 15.  Nevertheless, Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) would prefer to pass a budget ahead of considering appropriations bills on the House floor.  While GOP leaders continue to debate the merits of a budget resolution, they will likely continue to forge ahead with the fiscal year 2017 appropriations process.

House Natural Resources Committee Hearing on Proposed BLM Planning 2.0 Rule

On May 12, the House Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hold an oversight hearing on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) planning 2.0 rule.  The draft regulation, which was announced on February 11, is meant to improve BLM’s ability to address landscape-scale resource issues and to respond more effectively to environmental and social changes.  Among other things, the proposal seeks to amend existing procedures relating to land use planning and public engagement.  In doing so, the rule could affect the ability of local governments to effectively participate in the planning process.

The subcommittee will hear testimony from Mr. Jim French, a commissioner from Humboldt County, Nevada; Ms. Caren Cowan, Executive Director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association; Mr. Corey Fisher, Senior Policy Director at Trout Unlimited; and, Mr. Pete Obermueller, the Executive Director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.  A webcast of the hearing, as well as the testimony of the witnesses, can be accessed here.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to Hold Hearing on Feinstein Drought Bill

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee this week announced that the Subcommittee on Water and Power will hold a legislative hearing May 17 to discuss several pending water bills.  Among the legislation to be discussed is Senator Feinstein’s drought-relief measure – the California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act (S 2533).

On the operational side, S 2533 places an emphasis on real-time monitoring and updated science to inform decision-making on pumping rates.  According to Senator Feinstein, the legislation provides “maximum assurances” that it would not violate any environmental law, including the Endangered Species Act or the biological opinions for salmon or smelt.

In addition to provisions governing the operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, the legislation would authorize significant funding for a variety of programs, including water storage, desalination, and recycling programs.  Specifically, the measure would authorize $100 million for research, design, and construction of desalination projects.  Among other things, the bill also would increase funding for WaterSMART grants (from $350 million to $500 million) and would authorize additional funding for Title XVI recycling programs and various water storage projects.

While the timeline for committee action ultimately remains unclear, the hearing is likely a precursor to an eventual legislative markup of Senator Feinstein’s bill.  It should be noted that ENR Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has expressed her desire to include S 2533 as part of a broader Western-wide drought relief package.

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