President Trump Releases FY 2018 Budget
On May 23, President Trump transmitted to Congress his first budget, presenting his proposals for Fiscal Year 2018 and the next 10 years. This budget, the Administration’s first comprehensive statement on federal priorities establishes an unprecedented request to slash federal spending, proposing to cut $4 trillion over the next decade. The budget requests $668 billion for defense spending and $479 billion for non-defense/discretionary program spending.
Clean Water Act Citizen Suits Reform Measure Introduced
Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), together with Representatives Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Ken Calvert (R-CA) introduced legislation this week to address the abusive use of the Clean Water Act’s citizen suits provisions. Under the bill, an award resulting from litigation would continue to be authorized. However, the amount of an award would be proportionate to successful claims, not exceed monetary penalties awarded, and be based upon the prevailing legal market rates in the violation area. A restraining order or preliminary injunction could be issued, but a court would be authorized to require the filing of a bond to cover costs. To clarify past conflicting judicial decisions on how to define diligent prosecution, the legislation would define “diligent prosecution” as the issuance of an order. A final judicial order, if issued within one year of a proposed order, would be deemed to have been diligently prosecuted. Finally, the bill remedies the circumstance of the lack of any affirmative defenses. It applies affirmative defenses found in other statutes to the Clean Water Act. No liability would occur if a violation was the result of an act of God, war, or act or omission of a third party. The legislation has been referred to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Congressional Spending Committees Begin Dissecting Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request
One day after the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the FY 2018 budget, the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, held a hearing entitled Corps of Engineers (Civil Works) and the Bureau of Reclamation FY 2018 Budget Requests. Administration witnesses stressed the importance of water resources infrastructure that the budget places on programs supporting such needs. Additionally, the witnesses provided the Committee an overview of agency goals embodied within the budget request.
Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), provided an overview of USACE project fundamentals and goals that it wishes to achieve based upon the request. Semonite explained that USACE will follow three priorities when completing projects:
- Strengthen Our Foundations: complete routine tasks to a high standard and demonstrate that USACE is a reliable and competent partner.
- Deliver on the Program: Strive to ensure the cost, timeline, and expected quality needs of a project are understood upfront and successfully accomplished at completion.
- Achieve Our Vision: Address unforeseeable future events by taking logical, prudent, and decisive steps through strategic transformation of USACE and fulfilling the administration’s campaign goals.
In clarifying precisely, the transformation, Semonite identified these goals:
- work across the globe to support water resource and research expertise;
- continue to improve efficiency and deliver on water resources missions and address infrastructure challenges, including modernizing the project planning process;
- continue to be proactive in disaster responses; and
- prepare for tomorrow by recruiting and maintaining a pipeline of the best talent and expertise.
Recently nominated to become the Principle Deputy Secretary for Program, Planning and Budget for the Department of the Interior, Scott Cameron, testified that DOI is committed to ensure a sustainable water supply for the West. He highlighted that the budget supports these efforts, investing in water and power infrastructure, facilitating water delivery to 31 million people in the West, restoring aquatic ecosystems, supporting Indian Water Rights Settlements, and ensuring reliable energy through hydropower. Cameron noted that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will focus efforts to create “a leaner government.” He explained that USBR is working on a legislative proposal to facilitate the transfer of USBR projects to local and state interests when appropriate. This initiative will offer greater local control over water resources infrastructure and to allow local water managers to make decisions about how best to manage facilities.
Alan Mikkelsen, Acting Commissioner, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, explained the FY 2018 budget allocates funds to projects based upon an objective performance review assessment. The budget also continues to emphasize shared responsibility through collaboration with non-federal partners (such as P3s), merit-based funding based through evidence-based awarding selection, and the importance of increased storage capacity. Mikkelsen also took the opportunity to provide a selected update on USBR projects. He noted that the lower Colorado River Basin and the Bureau’s project to address drought as a priority to ensure the annual delivery of 7.5 million acre feet of water supply to CA, NV, and AZ, as well as an additional 1.5 million acre feet to Mexico. Mikkelsen noted that approximately 80% of the project’s costs are paid for by USBR partners or through the sale of hydropower generation. Coupled with the worst drought in 150 years, USBR is also looking for other ways to help California with implementation of water irrigation and conservation initiatives.
Turning to the record breaking water year in California, Mikkelsen firmly stated that one good year of precipitation does not solve multiple years of drought. The high levels of precipitation experienced alleviated some of the water supply concerns, but it also causes flooding. And highlights the importance of maintaining USBR’s infrastructure and continuing feasibility studies for to identify additional storage projects.
Finally, Doug Lamont, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), testified that the Civil Works’ budget reflects the administration’s goals to support and maintain water resources infrastructure.
Lamont explained that the budget does not allocate resources to support new project starts. Instead it will focus resources on ongoing projects and maintaining existing infrastructure. Finally, Lamont noted the budget supports the ability to fund projects under cost-sharing authorities provided under WIIN or providing technical and planning assistance.
Witnesses included Doug Lamont, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, Scott Cameron, Acting Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, Department of the Interior, and Alan Mikkelsen, Acting Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation.
During Chairman Mike Simpson’s (R-ID) questioning he highlighted public private partnerships (P3s) and expressed concern over the possibility of non-federal partners “being able to buy their way to the front of the federal funding line.” He asked the panel their thoughts and how the witnesses’ what their agencies are doing on this issue. Lamont answered indicating that with constrained federal resources, USACE is looking at every possibly. He stated that there is no preferential treatment, and that USACE looks at the needs of a project to ensure that it can defend the project from economic and public safety and health standpoints.
Semonite, responded that the Corps is an advocate of P3s, but there also needs to be an underlying understanding of what the rules are governing P3s. He agreed with Simpson that there needs to be fair and equitable policy governing the process. Mikkelsen explained that there is an understanding that there are communities that have access to private financing. When private financing is available USBR will promote the use of those private funds, because it frees-up additional money for communities that do not have access to the same level of private financing.
Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) highlighted the need for additional water storage. In seeking an update on efforts to address this need, he requested information on progress toward the development of a series of options including Sites Reservoir, expansion of existing facilities and how the State Water Bond is being used to leverage development. Finally, he sought assurances that dam safety issues were being addressed. Semonite replied that the priority is to manage risk and address engineering needs and public input.
Representative Peter Aguilar (D-CA) asked Semonite about modernizing the 404 permitting process. Semonite said that USACE is committed to figuring out how to better streamline the permitting process. However, he explained that the issue is a balancing act; if too much of the process is delegated to a lower level within USACE, it runs the risk of creating inconsistency in the process overall
Aguilar asked the panel how the swings in precipitation levels in the West impacted the agencies’ operations and how have the agencies addressed impacts. Cameron explained that in California, because of the recent record rainfall, the state is exploring new mechanisms for water storage. This would enable California to utilize the resources better in future summer months. Cameron emphasized the importance that the agencies coordinate further drought contingency plans to leverage opportunities. Semonite explained that the three main concerns are: sea level rise, high rainfall, and prolonged droughts. He explained that USACE intends to review data they have on these trends and look to see what are available tools and policies to help address these issues. Semonite echoed Cameron’s point about the need to be adaptive and flexible when developing solutions. He emphasized the priority not to “lock ourselves into an inadaptable bureaucracy”.
On May 25, the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies held a budget hearing on the U.S. Forest Service.
Testifying at the hearing were Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. Secretary Perdue acknowledged that he is new on the job and coming up to speed on Forest Service issues. In his opening statement, Perdue stated that wildfire funding is a huge issue and that he recognizes the need for sustainable wildfire funding. In addition, he highlighted the need for Congress and the Forest Service to consider legislation to address excessive litigation that harms the ability to manage healthy forests.
Regarding President Trump’s budget, which seeks a 21 percent cut to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a 12 percent reduction to Department of the Interior, Perdue stated that the budget was developed prior to his confirmation. Perdue voiced concern over the cuts to roads, trails and collaborative restoration programs. He advised the committee that he looks forward working with them to identify appropriate funding for these programs. Ranking Member Betty McCollum (D-MN) expressed concern regarding proposed elimination of programs that support state, local and private conservation programs. Secretary Perdue acknowledged her concerns and stated he will work with her as the process moves forward to support conservation programs.
Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) stated that he supports a renewed focus on forest health and productivity. He urged Secretary Perdue to make forest management a key priority during his tenure. Calvert highlighted the significant number of dead and dying trees in California’s national forests and asked Chief Tidwell to detail how the Forest Service plans to address this crisis. Tidwell replied that they are working closely with the State California and will provide over $37 million in assistance this year in response to the issue. Tidwell stressed that a key priority for the Forest Service is to continue to address not just the dead and dying trees, but to thin forests where tree mortality has not been as severe.
Flood Insurance Proposal Floated in the House
House Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) released a discussion draft summarizing legislation aimed at overhauling the National Flood Insurance Program. The draft is part of a committee effort to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program, that expires at the end of September.
U.S. Department of the Interior Announcements
Alan Mikkelsen has been named as U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Acting Commissioner
Scott Cameron (PDF) has been named as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget at U.S. Department of the Interior
Congress is out for the Memorial Day Recess until June 6.