COLUMN: Planning Ahead: Drought, Water Supply and the West

May 1, 2015
Weekly Column and Op-Ed
By Rep. Dan Newhouse

The critical water shortage facing many drought-stricken western states is a cautionary tale: when nature intervenes, it tests whether water management planning is meeting demand and providing stable, adequate supply. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor for March 31, 2015, all or significant portions of 11 western states, including the state of Washington, are suffering from severe to exceptional drought. Faced with extreme drought conditions, California has resorted to fines for excessive water usage – however, conservation by rationing shrinking water supplies will only go so far.

Washington, despite being blessed with the resources of the Columbia River, is also contending with a water shortage after a winter that brought the lowest snowpack in the Cascade Mountains in decades. Expanded water supply capacity is needed to meet the needs of the growing population of the West at large. Congress should respond not only in the short term, but also in the long-term by creating a forward-looking process to facilitate the creation of new surface water storage projects in a strategic and timely manner.

One of my top priorities in Congress is to advocate for the importance of removing regulatory barriers and red tape that slow down the approval and completion of surface water storage projects. Currently, the process for approving new or expanded dams and reservoirs is time-consuming and needlessly bureaucratic. Last week, I introduced the Bureau of Reclamation Surface Water Storage Streamlining Act of 2015, which would require the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the federal agency charged with developing much of the West’s water infrastructure, to accelerate feasibility studies of new or expanded surface water storage projects. The provisions in the legislation would improve accountability and transparency by giving BOR a three-year deadline and limiting spending to $3 million for project feasibility studies.

BOR is the agency responsible for building many of the nation’s dams and is a major participant in completing vital irrigation projects in Central Washington: the Columbia Basin Project and Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project. Both projects are critical for current and future water supplies for farmers, fish, ranchers and communities in Central Washington. Streamlining planning for projects like these across the country can help prepare more effectively for drought and provide adequate water resources for future development.

Not only is it important to improve the planning process for future water storage projects: it is crucial to safeguard current dams and reservoirs such as those on the lower Snake River. I introduced an amendment that the House approved last week with Rep. Paul Gosar (AZ) to prevent the removal of any federally-owned or operated dam, including the four lower Snake River dams. These dams are a vital component of the water infrastructure in the West, and they help ensure access to clean water supplies for many rural and agricultural communities. They provide important water storage, irrigation, flood control functions while producing 1,110 megawatts of clean, renewable hydroelectricity.

At a time when much of the West is facing what could be the worst drought in 100 years, it is more important than ever to plan for the future by increasing current water storage capacity.