The Senate recessed on Thursday evening, leaving the House still debating a supplemental appropriations bill on border control measures.  The House debate is a symbolic measure, since any bill will not be picked up by the Senate until after both chambers reconvene.  The only major items passed before recess were the stop-gap measure to provide funding for the Highway Trust Fund through May 2015 and a significant veteran’s health care bill. After the five week recess, the mid-term elections will be the main agenda, and many doubt the ability of the 113 Congress to make substantive progress on a bevy of long-term issues facing the administration until the lame duck session.  Meanwhile, several western states are in the most severe drought of the last 50 years – and despite discussion on Capitol Hill over the last few months regarding the need to immediately address increasing wildfire and drought in the West, no substantive measures were passed before the August recess.

Since California declared a “state of emergency” in January, the western drought has deepened.  As of July 31, according to the National Drought Monitor, 58 percent of California is in the most severe ‘exceptional drought’ category, with the entire state experiencing some level of drought.  The state has also experienced excessive heat for the first six months of 2014, which, according to Brad Rippey, meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture has led to “heavy irrigation demands, deteriorating rangeland and pasture conditions, and higher evaporation rates.” In years of drought, groundwater supplies are usually tapped in order to make up the shortfall, and the past decade has had some of the driest years on record in the West.  Within the Colorado River Basin, a watershed that is spread over seven states and Mexico, scientists have found that groundwater aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate, 80 percent of water losses in the region are from groundwater. In the last decade, groundwater in the region has fallen in volume in an amount equivalent to one and a half times the total volume of water that is in Lake Mead. 

While conservation becomes critical in drought years, the 20 percent voluntary conservation measures in California apparently aren’t putting a dent in water shortfalls in the state.  According to reports from the Associated Press, most California state agencies still cannot confirm if conservation methods are meeting the 20 percent reduction targets as compared to last year. Expressing frustration over a net increase in water usage as compared to last year, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to impose fines on anyone found using water excessively.  Shortly before the recess, Senators Boxer (D-CA), Feinstein (D-CA), and Representatives Napolitano (D-CA) and DeFazio (D-OR) introduced the W21: Water in the 21st Century bill (S. 2771).   S. 2771 would expand the EPA’s Water Sense program, a water conservation education and rebate program, open federal financing for water recycling and management projects, as well as establishing a water database at the Department of Interior.  Additionally, it would reauthorize the Water Resources Research act and the Water Desalination Research Act.   In February, Senators Feinstein, Boxer, Wyden (D-OR) and Merkley (D-OR) also introduced the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014, which aimed to provide relief to California and Oregon farmers and communities but drew much ire for its rerouting of water from Chinook and other protected fish spawning grounds to the Central Valley.

The extreme drought is also contributing to another severe wildfire season, with above average wildfire danger in California, Oregon, parts of Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona.  Over $600 million in wildfire budget shortfalls are expected before the end of the fiscal year in September.  The broadly supported Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1875 and HR 3992) would establish a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster fund for the truly worst fires.  In the last ten years, one percent of the fires have consumed over 30 percent of the wildfire budget.  Budget reallocations mid-year has left forestry management budgets short year after year.  With little hope of WDFA coming to a vote before the recess, a $615 million amendment for wildfires was tacked on to the border control measure, to meet the projected budget shortfall for 2014 and to also restructure wildfire management.  The supplemental appropriations measure was not passed by either chamber.     

While Congress is now in recess until September 8, wildfires will continue to rage – and states will continue to struggle with drought, forcing local leaders and communities to make tough choices.  The water shortfall is expected to cost the California economy $2.2 billion, and over 17,000 agricultural workers could lose their jobs.  Water and forestry management has been ignored for far too long, but a changing climate may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  We simply can no longer afford to ignore increasing temperatures and decreased rainfall in the West.  Not only will these events place significant strain on the region’s inhabitants and businesses, the effects will ripple across the nation, in higher food prices, threats to homes and utilities, and perhaps larger and even more serious economic and social effects. 



For more information see:

Senate Approves Veteran and Highway Bills, The New York Times 

Groundwater Disappearing Much Faster Than Lake Mead in Colorado River Basin, EcoWatch

California Can't Say If It's Meeting Drought Goal, The Huffington Post 

Boxer, Feinstein, Napolitano, DeFazio Introduce "W21: Water in the 21st Century" Legislation, Senator Barbara Boxer  

California drought: 'May have to migrate people', CNBC