In One Fell Swoop, Fed Bill Aims to Undermine CA’s Senior Water Laws, the Endangered Species Act and BDCP

Last Thursday, the contentious federal bill, H.R. 1837 was heard by the House Water and Power subcommittee. As Natural Resources Defense Council’s Doug Obegi noted, this bill would radically overturn and preempt state law, including California’s system of water rights. If enacted, H.R. 1837 would likely lead to Westlands (the largest agricultural water district in the U.S.) and other junior Central Valley Project (CVP) contractors to effectively increase their priority for water above senior water rights holders in the Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin River basin.  

The proposed legislation has been denounced by senior lawmakers for its potentially devastating impacts on commercial and recreational fishing, for undermining ongoing salmon recovery, and for damaging communities…all without inviting those impacted to even appear as witnesses. 

One of the more insidious, but less obvious, effects of H.R. 1837 is the destructive effect it would have on consensus-based efforts to improve California’s water system. One of these efforts is the Bay Delta Conservation Planning process (BDCP); an attempt to craft a habitat conservation plan under the federal Endangered Species Act and state Natural Community Conservation Planning Act. By eliminating the Endangered Species Act and state law protections for threatened and endangered species in the Bay-Delta, H.R. 1837 pulls the rug out from under the BDCP. If H.R. 1837 were to pass, there would simply be no legal foundation on which to build a habitat conservation plan.

It is not as though the agricultural water exporters are unaware of this risk to the BDCP process. In the Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird’s testimony to the subcommittee, he explicitly stated that pursuit of this bill would jeopardize the assurances necessary for the BDCP process to succeed. Secretary Laird further testified that the Nunes bill would “overturn 100 years of water law.”