H.R. 23: A VERY BAD FEDERAL WATER LAW BILL—AND A WORSE PRECEDENT

Posted on August 24, 2017 by Richard M. Frank

H.R. 23 is an important and most unfortunate environmental bill currently working its way through the U.S. Congress.  Sponsored by California Republican Congressman David Valadeo—with a strong assist from House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy—H.R. 23 passed the House of Representatives last month on what was largely a party-line vote, 230-190.  It has now moved to the U.S. Senate.

This California-specific legislation would “reform” federal and California state water and environmental laws in order to provide more water from federal and state water projects in California to state agricultural interests in the state’s Central Valley.  H.R. 23 would do so at the expense of environmental values.  (That’s not mere interpretation or speculation on the part of this observer—it’s the express intent of the bill.)

Why, exactly, is H.R. 23--which has largely evaded public and media attention to date--such a flawed legislative proposal?  Let me count the ways:

First, it would reverse an over century-long tradition of federal deference to state water law regarding the construction and operation of federal water projects.  Congress made that commitment in the Reclamation Act of 1902, which transformed the settlement and economy of the American West.  Congress has reiterated this commitment to cooperative federalism in numerous subsequent federal statutes.  But H.R. 23 reneges on that promise, expressly preventing California state water regulators from imposing any restrictions on the federal Central Valley Project that would protect environmental values.

Doubling down on its preemptive effect, H.R. 23 expressly exempts the CVP (and those who obtain water from it) from application of California’s public trust doctrine, which—as is true of many other states—operates as a longstanding, cornerstone principle of California natural resources law.

Additionally, H.R. 23 brazenly exempts operation of the CVP and other California water projects from the federal Endangered Species Act “or any other law” pertaining to those operations.

H.R. 23 thus is terrible news for California’s environment.  But why should environmental attorneys from other states be concerned about the bill?

The answer is again multifaceted.  H.R. 23 represents the first serious Congressional effort of 2017 to weaken application of the Endangered Species Act.  The broad ESA exemption contained in H.R. 23 could easily be replicated in future federal legislation affecting federal, state or local projects in other parts of the country.

Similarly, if the longstanding tradition of federal deference to application of state water law is breached by passage of H.R. 23, rest assured that similar attempts will be made concerning similar projects in other states as well.

H.R. 23 is opposed by both of California’s U.S. Senators, along with California Governor Jerry Brown.  Even more notably, California’s largest water district—the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California—has signaled its opposition to the bill, declaring that it “goes too far” in elevating agricultural water interests over California’s environment.

H.R. 23: an awful bill for California, and a terrible precedent for the nation as a whole.



Comments (1) -

Rick Glick United States
8/24/2017 6:10:39 PM #

The irony of this bill is breathtaking.  The party of small federal government and states rights is seeking to preempt state water law, considered sacrosanct in multiple acts of Congress beyond the Reclamation Act and a century of case law.  

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