Water bills propose desalination, hydropower and a BLM transfer

Posted: May 24, 2013

Written by

Annie Snider, E&E Daily
Deer Creek

The debate over the federal government's role in research and development will turn to desalination technology this week, as a House Natural Resources Committee subpanel weighs whether to renew a 16-year-old funding program.

On Thursday, the committee's subpanel on Water and Power will consider ranking member Grace Napolitano's (D-Calif.) H.R. 745, which would reauthorize the Water Desalination Act of 1996, providing $3 million a year through 2018 for research on converting seawater into fresh water.

Quirks of water law and heavily subsidized water projects in the American West have for years affected the economics of water delivery there, but municipalities and other water users are beginning to accept that the future is going to be drier and more expensive -- and are starting to invest in desalination. Ground was broken last year in Carlsbad, Calif., on the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, and proposals for more than a dozen other plants are pending along the state's coast (Greenwire, March 6).

"Desalination is critical for the future of a reliable, sustainable water supply, especially for our western states," Napolitano said in a statement when she introduced the bill in February. "We must continue to provide federal funding to enhance technologies for producing new water from the ocean in order to combat drought, population growth, and climate change."

But Republican members of the committee are broadly skeptical of federal investment in such technologies, contending that the private sector is already actively supporting research in this area.

Also up for consideration Thursday are two other water bills.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz's (R-Utah) H.R. 255 would enable the transfer of the Provo River Aqueduct from the Bureau of Reclamation to the Provo River Water Users Association. A related bill in the Senate, S. 211, was reported out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week (E&E Daily, May 17).

And H.R. 1963, from Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would remove federal statutes that prevent irrigation districts and other nonfederal hydropower developers in Montana and other Western states from developing hydropower on 11 Bureau of Reclamation canals, ditches and conduits. The bill is modeled on Rep. Steve Tipton's (R-Colo.) H.R. 678, which passed the House last month by a vote of 416-7 (E&E Daily, April 11).

Tipton's bill had originally included an exemption from most reviews and requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act for hydropower projects of less than 5 megawatts. That provision drew objections from environmental groups, though, and Tipton amended it on the floor to instead send projects covered by the bill through Reclamation's categorical exclusion process, the bureau's simplest environmental review. Daines' bill would do the same for the projects it covers.

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