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Two Droughts in California

Written by Congressman Dennis A. Cardoza (ret.)

California DroughtsThis was supposed to be the year that Californians had finally won a reprieve from the drought.  El Niño rains came and increased the snowpack to levels not seen for the previous four years.  Northern California reservoirs filled to near capacity.  Yet one year of close to average snowpack is not enough to break the accumulated impact of four years of drought.  According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 100% of California is in a state of drought and, as meteorologists predict the imminent arrival of a La Niña dry spell, the drought looks certain to continue for a sixth straight year in 2017.

U.S. Drought MonitorAs bad as the drought is, however, its threat to California’s water supply is amplified by a series of federal government policy choices. In addition to the historic, hydrological drought, large swaths of California, especially Southern California and the Central Valley, are subject to a “Regulatory Drought”—water scarcity caused by arbitrary government regulation.

I did not coin the term “Regulatory Drought.”

Though I have long observed the wrangling over California’s water supply, I was not the first to note that the policies governing the two large water systems in the state, the Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project, oftentimes unnecessarily deprive Californians of the water they depend on. Over the past 25 years, successive regulatory and legislative interventions like the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and Biological Opinions (BiOps) pursuant to the Endangered Species Act have reduced the functional capacity of the state’s water infrastructure. The cumulative impact of these overly-prescriptive operating requirements is that, even under optimal conditions, operators of the CVP could put no more than 50% of the CVP’s capacity toward its intended use.

Long Term Average

In two of the past three years, agricultural users have received a 0% allocation from the CVP. Even in this year of relatively normal water conditions, agricultural contractors will receive only 5% of the amount that they contract for from the CVP. While average Californians have been asked to cut back their water usage over 20% and the voters have supported the state’s prudent measure to increase water storage capacity in the form of a $7.5 billion water bond, hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water flowed past cities, farms, and towns to support declining populations of endangered Delta Smelt and Salmon. Last year, in the state that grows a full half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland went fallow for want of water.

There is a better way forward.

Congress is currently considering two pieces of legislation that would alter the downward trend of California water security. Last year, the House passed a drought relief measure sponsored by Congressman David Valadeo. Essentially, Valadeo’s proposal removes impediments to the delivery of water to users in California. His bill would require the revision of Delta Smelt and Salmon BiOps, eliminate the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement, proactively remove predatory, invasive fish from the Delta, and require the Bureau of Reclamation to expedite consideration of new water storage projects.

In a separate California drought relief bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein has sought to build a consensus around compromise. Feinstein’s bill is now the third version of drought-relief legislation that the Senator has crafted with the input of over 200 state, local, and federal stakeholders. Senator Feinstein’s approach combines a tempered version of Valadeo’s drought relief legislation, that uses real-time monitoring of hydrological conditions to work within the parameters of the ESA, and forward-looking provisions designed to add over 1 million acre-feet to California’s long-term water supply.

Both bills would be a step in the right direction and I have encouraged the Senate to pass Senator Feinstein’s legislation and begin conference with the House. Looking ahead to a sixth year of drought, Californians cannot have another year of delay and regulatory waste. Californians have been forced to adapt to the changing hydrological conditions. It is time that our regulations are updated to relieve the increasing burden on Californians.


Congressman Dennis A. Cardoza (ret.)

Dennis A. Cardoza is a public affairs director, co-chair of the Federal Public Affairs Practice and chair of the California Public Affairs Practice of Foley & Lardner LLP. He advises a broad range of clients on legislative, regulatory, and public policy and advocacy matters. Prior to joining Foley, Mr. Cardoza was elected to five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s 18th District, serving on the powerful House Rules Committee and as a key member of the House Democratic Leadership Team. Mr. Cardoza also served as co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of House Democrats committed to fiscal responsibility and accountability for taxpayer dollars. Before his election to the House, Mr. Cardoza spent six years in the California State Assembly, where he chaired the Rules Committee and helped found the Moderate Democratic Caucus. A number of organizations honored then-Assemblyman Cardoza as Legislator of the Year for his efforts to cut taxes, help family farms and promote education and children’s safety. Mr. Cardoza currently serves on the Board of Visitors for his alma mater, the University of Maryland.

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