On Dec. 16, President Barack Obama signed what probably is the most important federal water legislation in a quarter of a century – the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act – or WIIN. Make no mistake about it – this is a landmark moment in California water.
Earlier in December, Congress overwhelmingly passed the bill, which provides California water managers a diverse package of tools to meet our state’s water needs while protecting the environment. The Association of California Water Agencies, which represents urban and agricultural water agencies in every part of the state, strongly supports this legislation for three reasons: It reflects a rare bipartisan agreement, it is comprehensive, and it works for the environment and the economy.
This legislative package was carefully crafted after years of unprecedented negotiations led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield. The bill was supported by substantial numbers of Democrats in the House and Senate, including prominent Democratic congressional representatives in the Sacramento area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
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We believe this legislation brings us to the middle ground in water policy where our water system can work for fish and the environment, as well as for our agricultural economy and the people of California. In other words, it meets California’s co-equal goals of enhancing ecosystem health and water supply. It also dovetails with Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Action Plan, which is the guidepost for securing our state’s water future.
The water infrastructure bill authorizes numerous projects in nearly every part of the state and allows California water managers to work collaboratively with federal agencies to improve drought preparedness and create flexibility to meet our needs during dry and wet years. Specifically, it authorizes $558 million for new water infrastructure in the West, including $515 million for storage, water recycling and reuse, and desalination projects in California.
The bill strengthens water-supply reliability by helping water agencies construct stormwater capture projects, groundwater recharge projects and a gamut of other projects that bolster local supply. It authorizes numerous other environment-enhancing projects too, including restoration of the Los Angeles River, Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea.
Some say the California drought language in the measure will be detrimental to the environment. It will not. As Obama noted in his signing message, this legislation reflects a balanced approach to water management that will improve water supplies without violating the Endangered Species Act. Obama stressed that the relationship between the federal government and California as partners in water management will help to “achieve a careful balance based on existing state and federal law.”
Among the bill’s protections for fish species is its addressing of stressors to fish and their habitats, including spawning and rearing habitat for salmon. It also allows better monitoring and real-time information to increase flexibility in operating California’s water system to capture water during wet weather, while protecting listed fish species.
As local water leaders, we place a premium on collaboration and balanced approaches. We have a role to play in shepherding these projects to completion and countering the myth that this legislative package is somehow bad for fisheries. It is time to nullify the notion that any water going to the economy is bad for fish. We need the flexibility to capture and store water when flows are high and there is little impact on the environment. It doesn’t make sense to miss these opportunities, and this legislation will help.
Californians deserve a full-functioning water system that protects and enhances the environment and ensures water reliability for its citizens. This bipartisan legislation moves us toward that.
Kathleen Tiegs is president of the Association of California Water Agencies. She can be reached at KathyT@cvwdwater.com. Brent Hastey is vice president of the ACWA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.