Bill Overrides State’s Decision on Water Rights

DC Dialogue

House bill could set a bad legal precedent of Congress preempting state water laws, but welcomed by ranchers.

Published on: April 27, 2012

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act (H.R. 1837), introduced by Congressman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), in a bipartisan vote of 246 to 175 earlier this year. President Barack Obama’s advisors are recommending a veto and farm and environmental groups are mixed over the ramifications the bill may have on preempting state water laws and property rights.

Decades-old water policy in the state of California has ensured that more than 27 million water users in the central and southern regions of California have access to water via a complex network of water storage and delivery systems, including farms. However, lawsuits brought by environmental groups claiming that the water pumps were the primary factor in the population decline of the Delta smelt led to water delivery being restricted and in some instances completely prevented from being delivered to Central Valley farms and ranchers.

While there are other factors contributing to the population decline of the Delta smelt, the water diversion has resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres of farm and ranch land being left fallow and more than 10,000 farm workers being sent to unemployment lines, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., said in a statement.

Joe Guild, chairman of NCBA’s federal lands committee and a Public Lands Council (PLC) board member, noted that environmental laws have been abused and “trampled on the private water rights of cattlemen.”

In the Statement of Administration Policy, Obama advisors noted that the bill “would undermine five years of collaboration between local, State, and Federal stakeholders to develop the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. It would codify 20-year old, outdated science as the basis for managing California's water resources, resulting in inequitable treatment of one group of water users over another. And, contrary to 100 years of reclamation law that exhibits congressional deference to State water law, the bill would preempt California water law.”

The Environmental Defense Fund also noted it would set a bad legal precedent of Congress preempting state water laws.

“It is long standing federal policy to defer to states on water rights,” said David Festa, vice president of West Coast operations and Land, Water, Wildlife program, who is a former Director of Policy and Strategic Planning for the U.S. Department of Commerce. “Making an exception in this case wouldn’t help forge a long term solution, but it would create a bad precedent for all western states.” 

“The best decisions are made locally,” said Cynthia Koehler, an attorney who is EDF’s California water legislative director. “The Administration is right when it says that a congressional end run would ultimately create more delays and lawsuits as parties sift through the many decisions that would have to be made in order to implement the proposed law. This bill threatens the quality of the water pumped out of the Bay Delta estuary, thousands of West Coast jobs, and our economy.”

The bill overturns the court approved settlement, reached through negotiations among the parties to restore the San Joaquin River, which both the EDF and Obama advisors noted as problematic with the bill.