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Honorable Mark Sanford

Representing the 1st District of South Carolina

Vote Notes: H.R. 23, the Gaining Responsibility Over Water Act

Aug 18, 2017
Blog Post

Last month, the House voted on H.R. 23, the Gaining Responsibility Over Water Act. I was one of seven Republicans to vote no, but the bill passed 230 to 190. On its face, this bill seemed like a straightforward attempt to solve years of drought and groundwater depletion in the western United States. But in fact, the bill is far more complex than it first appears, and consequently, I had two major reservations worth noting below.

One was tied to the notion of federalism. If you really believe that the government most local generally governs best, then locals should indeed have some degree of authority in determining what happens in their backyard. The second involved the establishment of a “pay to play” permitting system for water management projects that would unfairly benefit communities with the most resources.

First, the bill overrides the State of California’s environmental regulations as they apply to the federal government’s Central Valley Project (CVP) and the state government’s State Water Project (SWP). What this means in simpler terms is that the federal government would be able to ignore a wide range of environmental laws in California that were passed to protect and manage the state’s own water and wildlife resources. I suspect you and I may disagree with many of the environmental laws passed in California, but if one really believes in the idea of local control, we would recognize it is not up to us in South Carolina to dictate California state law.

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution declares that any powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution are reserved to the states or to the people. While I’m sympathetic to the bill’s attempts to help the state and federal governments better prevent future droughts, we should ultimately be leery of any bill that tries to replace local authority with more federal control.

Second, the bill sets up a “pay to play” permitting system for expediting the approval of dam construction in California. Local communities would be allowed under this bill to pay a fee to the Bureau of Reclamation in order to expedite the decision process on their dam permitting applications.

The bottom line here is that wealthier communities that can afford to pay the expediting fee will be approved far more quickly than communities that might be struggling to pay for other services. The law represents the promise of equality under the law, and accordingly, I am uncertain how one can treat two municipalities differently in this instance.