Dam Construction Bill Puts Washington Senator in Tough Spot

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By David Schultz

House Republicans think now might finally be the time they can pass a years-in-the-making bill that would speed up federal approvals of dam projects in the West.

And, in doing so, they could also force Pacific Northwest Democrats into a tough spot.

For years, Republicans have been trying to pass legislation that would put a cap on the amount of money and time the Bureau of Reclamation can spend studying the environmental impact of proposed dam projects. But these bills have always been thwarted in the Senate by a united Democratic opposition, led primarily by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

This time, however, the bill’s backers have a trick up their sleeve: They’ve added a measure to the legislation that would give the green light to a $737 million water resources project in Cantwell’s home state, a project she’s been championing for years.

Cantwell said the Republicans’ tactics won’t work on her.

“They’re trying to attach [the water resources project] to bad ideas, but we won’t support bad ideas,” she told Bloomberg Environment. “We’re going to work it out.”

Environmental Reviews

One of the most frequent criticisms of the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams and other water infrastructure items in western states, is its slow pace in approving new projects.

This is mainly due to the cost and complexity of legally mandated environmental reviews the bureau must complete for each project, according to Alan Mikkelsen, a deputy commissioner at the bureau, appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier this year.

“We have situations where the studies are costing more than the project,” Mikkelsen said at a recent House Natural Resources Committee hearing.

The agriculture industry, always searching for new sources of irrigation water in the parched West, would like the bureau to move more quickly in creating new reservoirs.

Environmentalists, however, say new dams can disrupt the movement of aquatic wildlife, such as endangered species of fish, throughout a river basin. Many have advocated removing existing dams rather than constructing new ones.

Republicans have largely sided with farmers on this issue. Their solution to the problem of seemingly never-ending environmental reviews is to place limits on their scope. Under the GOP’s bill, H.R. 4419, the bureau would not be able to take longer than three years or spend more than $3 million on any single review.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), the primary sponsor of the bill, said the bureau needs to accelerate its work on water projects in this arid part of the country. “My constituents know all too well the impacts of devastating water shortages,” he said at the hearing.

Yakima Basin

Versions of this legislation failed in the last two sessions of Congress. Democrats have steadfastly opposed them in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster.

This time, however, the legislation would authorize the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project. This project would irrigate huge swaths of land in southern Washington, where farms are dependent on irrigation.

The bureau completed a feasibility study on the project in 2012 and, much to the dismay of Washington lawmakers, it has languished ever since. Cantwell has been trying to get Congress to give this project the go-ahead for years and even submitted her own standalone bill, S. 714, that would do just that.

Cantwell could face a tough choice if Newhouse’s bill makes it to the Senate: She might have to oppose authorizing the Yakima project in the name of maintaining environmental requirements on the bureau that farmers in the West, and in her state, argue are unnecessary.

‘Seen This Movie Before’

If Democrats are nervous about setting up a difficult vote, they aren’t showing it.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources subcommittee that deals with water issues, said Republican attempts to force this bill through are clumsy and cynical because they know they ultimately won’t be able to get 60 votes for it in the Senate.

“The House could pass a ham sandwich if it wanted to, and we’ve passed a lot of ham sandwiches,” he told Bloomberg Environment. “But we’ve seen this movie before.”

It’s unfortunate, he added, because the Yakima project enjoys wide bipartisan support.

“If you had the Yakima bill by itself, it would be supported by a lot of people,” he said. “In fact, would be difficult to stop that bill.”

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