Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill last week to help address ongoing and future drought in California. The bill, known as the California Emergency Drought Relief Act (Act), is expected to be folded into broader legislation addressing the historic drought in the Western United States. The bill’s goals are to move existing water supplies and develop new  water sources in order to help those communities suffering the worst effects of the drought, while complying with the existing regulatory regime under the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. Senator Feinstein’s bill will compete with H.R. 2898, sponsored by Representative David Valadeo (R-CA), which passed in the House on July 16, 2015.

The Act outlines a process for emergency releases of water to Central Valley Project (CVP) agricultural, municipal and industrial contractors, CVP refuge service and repayment contractors, State Water Project (SWP) contractors, and other localities and municipalities in the State. The Act would also authorize streamlined environmental review procedures for water deliveries addressing emergency drought conditions, and delegate the design of such streamlined procedures to the Council on Environmental Quality and the applicable federal agency.

With respect to species protection, the Act would authorize appropriations of $4,000,000 annually through 2020 for the implementation of the Recovery Plan for the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and Central Valley steelhead. The Act also includes provisions for evaluating nonstructural barriers at Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta (Delta) cross-channel gates and other key Delta junctions to prevent straying of threatened or endangered salmonids, as well as measures to reduce predation and enhance habitat for threatened and endangered Delta species.  In addition, the Act directs the Secretary of the Interior to initiate studies by January 1, 2016 on the location and distribution of the federally threatened delta smelt throughout its range and to determine methods to minimize the effects of the CVP and SWP operations on the delta smelt, among other measures.

The Act also casts a wide net to reduce the risk of a water deficit in the face of current and potential future drought conditions in California, providing for a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program to help stabilize water supplies for small rural and disadvantaged communities, and funding for select desalination projects and water storage, water recycling, water conservation and groundwater recharge projects.