WATER INFRASTRUCTURE Ag Industry Hopeful Congress Will Act

By Tim Linden W ater infrastructure is a lot like the weather— everyone talks about it but nothing is ever done about it. Consider that the vast majority of water projects serving California were in the planning stage 80 to 90 years ago and were built in 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Since then, there have been virtually no massive public projects and only a few smaller, privately- funded ones. The initial projects were planned for a California population that was expected to hit about 16 million people in 1960 and 20 million a decade later. Since the last major project was built, the population has more than doubled and is currently increasing at about 1 percent per year, which means more than 50 million people in the state by 2040. Will there be enough water for both people and agriculture? The short answer is no, but a survey of a number of well- informed observers are “cautiously optimistic” that the path toward mitigation may begin to take shape in Congress this year after years of neglect. In fact, “terribly neglectful” is the phrase Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority, ascribed to the past two generations of leaders regarding their action concerning California’s water needs. The “Greatest Generation” has received lots of credit for the forward-thinking visionaries who fought a World War and then came back home to fund and build America’s future. Highways in disrepair, crumbling bridges, sinking canals and insufficient water storage are the result of a half century of alternative priorities. But there just may be light at the end of the tunnel. Dennis Nuxoll, Western Growers vice president of federal government affairs, said there is a lot of discussion going on in the nation’s capital presently about both water issues and infrastructure. He said these discussions are creating “momentum” that just might result in a “water package” becoming part of the road and bridges infrastructure legislation currently given a fighting chance to succeed in this Congress. There has been bi-partisan support for an infrastructure bill since President Donald Trump came to office more than two years ago. For a variety of reasons, the administration moved infrastructure legislation to the back burner of its priority list. Since the new Congress convened in January, it has once again surfaced as at least one major area where the deeply- divided government might agree. In the meantime, Nuxoll indicated that Congress is not quite as dysfunctional as it appears. In fact, Congress has, on a bi-partisan basis, been working on a “Drought Contingency Plan”

that establishes protocols for the seven western states served by the Colorado River if Lake Mead and Lake Powell dip to specific low levels of capacity. Nuxoll said this action, which includes full engagement of 14 U.S. senators representing both parties, has combined with other water issues to create the momentum in the water arena. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on this rare congressional collaboration, more than 100 organizations representing western agriculture and water interests recently sent a letter to both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate urging the legislative bodies “to use any infrastructure package to help address severe hydrological conditions in the West.” The letter identifies the broad needs of the West in several areas including water conservation, water storage and forest management, as well as help in creating “flexibility under existing environmental laws and regulations…” Nuxoll expressed optimism that an infrastructure bill including water could get passed and signed into law this year. Several western water experts also expressed varying degrees of optimism and also weighed in on the severity of the water issues facing the western states, and what the best solutions might be to address water shortage issues. Scott Petersen, water policy director for the San Luis & Delta- Mendota Water Authority said he was “cautiously optimistic,” noting that he might be “more hopeful than optimistic” that legislation would be considered and passed. He did allow that there appears to be more consensus about the need to invest in water infrastructure now than in many years. “There is widespread recognition that there is a need,” he said, noting that it has been 16 years since the Metropolitan Water District finished the Diamond Valley Reservoir in Southern California, the last major water storage facility constructed in the Golden State. “California’s water system is absolutely at a breaking point.” He said the California legislation passed in 2014 to address groundwater overdraft—the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—could result in the fallowing of as much as 500,000 to one million acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley if additional surface supplies of water are not accessed. He said this will have a “devastating impact” on the economy in the affected areas, and that concept appears to have widespread acceptance, citing a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Petersen said there has been “encouraging dialogue” among

12   Western Grower & Shipper | www.wga.com   MAY | JUNE 2019

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