A dominant theme washing over Capitol Hill in the waning days of the session centers on how Congress can effectively address the diverse and legitimate needs of the many Western states confronting historic drought and water issues. There are nearly two dozen legislative proposals from both Democrats and Republicans tackling everything from invasive bark beetles damaging forests to wildfire suppression funding.
Drought in Idaho and across the West has caused billions of dollars in impacts this year alone and is predicted to cost billions more in the coming years. Scientists now say huge carbon effects in our forests will last years after the drought ends.
Our elected officials have taken notice.
Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., are pushing the Prepare, Ready, Equip, and Prevent Areas at-Risk of Emergency (PREPARE) Wildfires Act, which would provide targeted investments for wildfire mitigation to reduce the size and scope of fires.
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Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador helped pass a drought relief bill in the House this summer that would benefit Idaho, but it was coldly received in the Senate.
Unfortunately, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer responded with an alternative bill they wrote with the help of 12 environmental activist groups that would benefit California. However, it would do little for other Western states and would actually expand California’s environmental mandates to other states.
By some government estimates more than 93 million Americans are now affected by the drought. At least 10 Western states are falling victim to drought conditions and receiving USDA drought relief: Arizona, California, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. More than 10 others around the nation have been similarly designated. The impact of the drought ripples across the nation, which has a vested interest in food prices, the security of our food supply and the economy at large.
In response, the U.S. House of Representatives sensibly sought to bundle a Western states package of measures into a comprehensive plan to address drought as a single crisis demanding a federal and regional approach. A comprehensive package solves many states’ problems rather than dealing with them piecemeal. As important as California is, and despite its historic crisis, a California-centric approach must end.
This is no small task. And nothing short of a unified, bipartisan commitment should be expected, involving leadership from both the House and Senate.
The drought is regional and much bigger than California. Any fix should address the needs of the West, not just one state. The sooner congressional delegations across the West band together and start treating the drought crisis as an issue of national significance, the better the West, Idaho and the nation will be — even California.
Norm Semanko is executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association and past president of the National Water Resources Association.