Western Drought Legislation

Several western states are experiencing severe, and in some cases exceptional, drought. Conditions in California (which has been in a drought since 2012) have been particularly severe and have garnered national attention. California's drought has decreased from its peak levels in 2015, but the drought's persistence and intensity have driven ongoing interest in federally managed water supplies (in particular those supplies managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, or Reclamation), support for state and local water projects and programs, and conservation of fish species.

Although no comprehensive drought legislation has been enacted by the 114th Congress, multiple drought bills have been introduced, including H.R. 2898, S. 2533, S. 2902, S. 1894, S. 176, and H.R. 2983. Drought-related provisions have also been incorporated into other active bills, including energy legislation (S. 2012, engrossed in House) and FY2017 appropriations legislation (H.R. 5055). As of early June 2016, the House had passed H.R. 2898 and S. 2012 (with drought provisions); the Senate had yet to pass legislation incorporating drought provisions.

Active Drought Legislation in the 114th Congress

In the 114th Congress, several bills that would address drought have been acted on by the House. H.R. 2898, the Western Water and American Food Security Act, passed the House on July 17, 2015. The bill has 11 titles that address a wide range of drought issues, including those specific to the state of California and the operations of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and those of regional or national scope that would affect Reclamation programs and policies. Among other things, H.R. 2898 would direct changes to the implementation of federal biological opinions (BiOps) for species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA; P.L. 93-205) to increase CVP water exports for agriculture.

The House has also incorporated some or all of the provisions in H.R. 2898 in other legislation. Division C, Title I of the House version of S. 2012 includes text identical to H.R. 2898. Separately, several provisions that appear to draw on CVP-related provisions in H.R. 2898 were included in Sections 204 through 206 of the committee-reported version of the FY2017 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill (H.R. 5055).

In the Senate, S. 2533, California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act (introduced by Senator Feinstein), has received attention as a potential alternative to H.R. 2898. The bill shares a number of provisions with a 2015 drought bill (S. 1894), which has not been reported out of committee. A companion House bill to S. 2533, H.R. 5247, has been introduced and appears to be identical to the Senate bill.

Congress has held hearings on drought, including a June 2, 2015, Senate oversight hearing on drought conditions in the West. H.R. 2898 and S. 1894 were the subject of an October 8, 2015, legislative hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power. In 2016, S. 2533 and S. 2902 (which focuses largely on Bureau of Reclamation-related provisions not specific to California) were the subject of a May 17, 2016, hearing before the same committee. A timeline of major actions on drought legislation in the 114th Congress is provided below in Table 1.

Table 1. Drought Legislation Timeline: 114th Congress

(bills acted upon in 2015-2016)



June 25, 2015

H.R. 2898 introduced in the House

July 13, 2015

H.R. 2898 reported by the House Committee on Natural Resources

July 16, 2015

H.R. 2898 passed by the House

July 29, 2015

S. 1894 introduced in the Senate

Sept. 9, 2015

S. 2012 introduced in the Senate (no drought provisions included)

Oct. 8, 2015

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing held on S. 1894 and H.R. 2898

Feb. 10, 2016

S. 2533 introduced in the Senate

April 20, 2016

S. 2012 passed by the Senate (no drought provisions included)

April 26, 2016

H.R. 5055 reported by the House Appropriations Committee (includes drought provisions in Sections 204-206)

May 9, 2016

S. 2902 introduced in the Senate.

May 15, 2016

H.R. 5247 (companion bill to S. 2533) introduced in the House

May 17, 2016

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing held on S. 2533 and S. 2902.

May 25, 2016

S. 2012 passed by the House (includes drought provisions identical to H.R. 2898 under Division C, Subtitle I)

May 26, 2016

H.R. 5055 failed to pass the House

Source: Congressional Research Service.

Previously Enacted Drought Provisions

Although no comprehensive drought legislation has been enacted in recent years, Congress has enacted provisions to address some drought-related issues in other bills. For instance, FY2015 Energy and Water Development Appropriations under P.L. 113-235 extended authorization for the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act (P.L. 102-250) through FY2017, and FY2016 Energy and Water Development Appropriations under P.L. 114-113 provided Reclamation with authority to incorporate new water storage into dam safety projects. Both bills also provided funding to Reclamation for western drought response ($50 million and $100 million in FY2015 and FY2016, respectively).

Related CRS Products

Multiple CRS reports provide additional background information on drought and the aforementioned drought bills. Relevant CRS products include the following: