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Drought rider to water bill bad for fish and anglers

It’s no secret that the American legislative process has some disagreeable aspects. Some pieces of law get passed not because they pass the smell test but because they get packaged with other stuff that has to be enacted.

This week the House of Representatives passed such a bill–a measure that could do great harm to anglers and to businesses that rely on salmon or steelhead from the West Coast.

Trout Unlimited always pays close attention to the fine print of bills working their way through Congress, especially at the end of the year when members of the House and Senate are eager to get home for the holidays.

The details of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which passed the House of Representatives yesterday, illustrate just how important that scrutiny is.

One provision in WRDA is particularly harmful to trout and salmon and the commercial and recreational fisheries based on them. That would be Subtitle J-California Water, §§ 4001-4014, which is intended to help address the challenges of meeting water needs in the nation’s most populous state during periods of drought (California is going through the most extended, severe drought in more than 500 years).

This subtitle directs federal agencies to maximize pumping of water from California’s Bay-Delta-the hub of Central Valley salmon and steelhead runs-for agricultural and municipal use. It also provides $335 million for new dam building in California and authorizes the “design, study, and construction or expansion” of new federal dams across the seventeen western states without Congressional oversight.

Allowing the Interior Department to authorize federal dams without Congressional oversight breaks with decades of longstanding law and practice.

Some sections of the “Subtitle J–California Water” drought provision risk up-ending years of local, watershed-based investment by stakeholders to arrive at water scarcity solutions that meet agricultural, environmental and municipal needs, not only in California but across the West.

Durable and fair drought solutions are best developed through open and collaborative processes with all stakeholders. The Yakima and Klamath pieces of legislation in the Energy bill (which was recently killed in end of the year negotiations) are two excellent regional examples, but on the ground throughout the West, there are many more local examples of drought solutions which help rivers and fish, producers and communities.

Subtitle J-California Water was added to WRDA in recent days, not through an open and collaborative process but through backroom negotiations. Though California is the nation’s epicenter for drought hardship, drought is prevalent in other areas of the country. Congress should not reward legislation developed in this manner-in California or any other state-that adversely affects so many stakeholders.

As passed by the House yesterday, WRDA would directly harm TU members, fishing-related businesses, and the communities that depend on them. Salmon runs in California’s Central Valley, when healthy, contribute $1.4 billion to the economy and support 23,000 jobs. This fishery constitutes 60 percent of Oregon’s coastal salmon catch and part of Washington’s as well.

It would be a tragedy to have salmon disappear from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The drought has been hard on everyone, but nobody has been harder hit than commercial and recreational fishing businesses.

Many members of Congress have worked hard on important provisions of WRDA that deserve passage, including several which will restore watersheds and help ensure clean drinking water. TU strongly urges Congress not to hold those meritorious provisions hostage to an unworkable and unrelated drought measure. Congress should eliminate Subtitle J-California Water, §§ 4001-4014 from WRDA and work together openly before this session of Congress adjourns to deliver better drought solutions for California and other regions of the country.

Top photo courtesy California Department of Fish & Wildlife.