LITTLE RIVER, 5/25/21 — In a bid to revamp the western United State’s water system, Representative Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced a massive water bill on Thursday, May 20.
The bill, called FUTURE Western Water Infrastructure and Drought Resiliency Act, would allocate over $1 billion of federal money, largely from the reclamation fund, to update infrastructure, protect and restore ecosystems, and upgrade water technology and data gathering systems.
“I’ve been doing my best to try to make the case that the future water supply of California is not going to come from the same places it did in the last century,” said Huffman during a Zoom interview Monday afternoon. “It’s going to come from 21st century tools.”
Separately, Huffman said that the possibility of raising the Coyote Valley dam and the relicensing the Potter Valley Project are moving forward.
“I have gotten the study for raising the Coyote Valley dam going again,” said Huffman during a Zoom interview on Monday. “It had lapsed, the Army Corps of Engineers was not moving forward with that, but I have worked with them to get it back on the radar screen. We’re going to be pushing that because I think it is part of a viable long term, two basin solution.”
In terms of the Potter Valley Project, Huffman said that the initial studies needed to move the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license from project forward are going to cost around $18 million and that legislation he passed last year created a program that could provide funding. “I was successful in passing legislation last year that created a new program with the Bureau of Reclamation that could fund work like that,” he said. “It’s going to have to be applied for, going to have to be awarded, but I’m pretty confident that this two basin partnership is in great shape to compete for and achieve that funding.”
If passed as is, the FUTURE act would initiate a grant program and open up funding for water recycling, desalination, and storage, including projects.
“We need to manage the water we have now,” said Huffman. “Water recycling, water use efficiency, advanced water treatment technologies, desalination where it makes sense, groundwater storage.”
Although the FUTURE act could open the doors to a flood of money for water system improvement, there’s no saying where exactly that money would go — if it would be evenly distributed across all communities of need, or if it would fall into the pockets of regions that already have connections and funds for dedicated grant writers.
“Often when you have a competitive grant program, the rich just get richer,” said Huffman on Monday. “And we don’t want that to happen.”
Huffman outlined a few of the safeguards that he has in place to prop up smaller, less advantaged communities, including lowering match requirements and setting standards that benefit smaller, rural counties. For example, the bill has a specific grant for a “rural desalination project” designated for communities that serve less than 40,000 residents. It’s too soon to tell whether these considerations will be enough to level the playing field between small rural counties like Mendocino and wealthy suburban ones like Marin.
This is not the first time that drought and water shortages have plagued California, but the need for updates to the state’s water system has become blaringly obvious this year.
First, the disappointingly dry rainy season left reservoirs around the state with only a fraction of the water they usually have. Now, almost 75% of the state is in an extreme to exceptional drought, according to the federal government’s US Drought Monitor. And even more worrisome, California’s snowpack, which provides 30% of the state’s water, is at 2% of normal for this time of year.
Sadly, no congressional bill can make it rain more, but Huffman’s FUTURE act focuses on funding technology and infrastructure that could help California increase municipal, agricultural, and household water security while improving natural ecosystems.
While noting that the state has the right to regulate water allocation without interference from the federal government, Huffman’s bill argues that federal assistance is needed to create a more secure water system in California.
“Addressing water shortages today and in the future will require action from the Federal Government that respects State, local, and Tribal law,” wrote Huffman in his bill. “And that the policies that respond to droughts should not pit State against State, region against region, or stakeholders against one another.”
Although Huffman claims the bill should appeal to any western state politician, he expects that due to the contentious political climate, it will have to pass through budget reconciliation — which means that it will only need a simple majority in the Senate rather than the 60 votes required in the usual process.
“This would be hugely in the interest of any senator in a western state,” said Huffman. “However, sometimes I think [Republicans] want the fight more than they want the solution.”