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Shutdown Fears Downplayed, But the Clock is Ticking Down to Hours to Strike a Funding Deal

On March 23, the federal government faces the prospect of a third shutdown as Congress struggles to fashion a final compromise on the Fiscal Year 2018 spending bill to fund governmental programs through September 30, 2018.  Another governmental shutdown that was once unthinkable, because of an agreement to raise budget caps and thereby maintain domestic and defense programs’ spending, has now become an open possibility.

Specifically, the annual ritual of using spending bills to achieve policy objectives has conspired to bring Congress to the precipice of the fiscal cliff.  Among the controversies are the usual suspects: abortion restrictions, fixes to the recently enacted tax cuts, and environment and workplace safety rules that includes the Waters of the U.S. rule.  In addition to these general policy rider debates, there are a number of parochial interests, like efforts to speed pre-construction funding with a $20 million appropriation to support the Shasta Dam water storage project and construction of a New York/New Jersey transit tunnel.  In the case of California’s Shasta Dam enlargement water storage project, which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has made a priority, the effort has drawn unequivocal opposition from California Governor Jerry Brown.

The prospect of finding an agreement on the numerous riders conspired to delay a House vote on the spending package this Friday, suggesting that the coming week will again witness a flurry of debates over the riders with final resolution coming hours before the clock strikes midnight on March 23.

If there is any silver lining in the situation, it appears that the funding levels for infrastructure programs and other programs vital to local needs will fare reasonably well, avoiding the draconian cuts sought by the Administration.


FY 2019 Appropriations Season Gets Underway

This week, House and Senate committees held hearings to examine the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19) budget requests.  Administrators and Secretaries from agencies testified before the committees to respond to Members questions.

Water Resources Funding Examined By House Committee on Appropriations

On March 14, the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies examined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Bureau of Reclamation’s (USBR) FY19 budgets requests.  Testifying at the hearing were the Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R.D. James; Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, Commanding General and Chief of Engineers; UDOI Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Timothy Petty; and, USBR of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.

In opening remarks, Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Ranking Member Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) stated that the Administration’s FY19 budget requests for USACE and USBR were insufficient to address the nation’s water and energy resource needs.

Commissioner Burman testified that USBR’s FY19 budget focuses on four principals: 1) increasing water delivery and storage capacity, 2) supporting efficient energy generation, 3) providing multipurpose recreation access, and 4) adhering to the Bureau’s mission of conservation.  Burman stressed the need to increase water storage in California to prepare for the region’s forecasted dry season(s).

Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) asked Burman why California’s two major waterways, the Colorado River and Bay Delta, supply different amounts of water to the state.  Burman explained that it is a water storage issue.  While the Colorado River has an immense amount of water storage, the Bay Delta does not.  As a result, USBR Central Valley Project is must reduce its water use allocations because the system does not have the storage capabilities to carry-over excess water from last year’s record-setting rainfalls.  To address California’s water storage issues, Burman explained that the USBR has been conducting storage studies and that the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act called for new water storage opportunities. USBR plans to send Congress a list of projects that it deems most useful to meet supply demands.

USDOI Secretary Ryan Zinke Testifies Before the House and Senate

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held the first of three budget hearings this week, reviewing the Administration’s FY19 budget request for the U.S. Department of the Interior (USDOI).  USDOI Secretary Ryan Zinke testified.

In his testimony, Zinke noted that the FY19 budget request provides $1 billion for USBR’s water resource programs.  The budget allocates $447 million for USBR construction, planning, and management of water and energy projects and programs, and $444 million for water and power facility operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation activities.  Zinke also stated that the budget request includes $10 million for the continuation of the WaterSMART water conservation grants and $3 million for Title XVI water recycling reuse research grants.

The hearing’s discussion focused on budget issues regarding the national parks system, public lands, and oil drilling.  In response to questions about the lack of sufficient federal funding, which limits project funding, Zinke explained that a possible way to enhance federal resources, especially for water resource projects, could involve project title transfers, when appropriate, to free up federal resources that would otherwise support such projects.

Regarding water infrastructure, Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) highlighted the budget cuts to the Rural Water Program and asked the Secretary to explain why cuts are proposed to the program when the West faces severe water resource challenges.  Zinke said he shares the Cantwell’s concerns over rural water infrastructure needs and said that he will work with her on the issue.  Cantwell went on to say that the kinds of water projects that deserve major infrastructure investment are projects that can take existing sources of water and use the resource more resiliently.  She cautioned though that smaller rural communities will still need some federal assistance to construct such projects.

House Committee on Natural Resources

On March 15, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing, entitled, “Policy Priorities at the Department of the Interior and the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Proposal.”  USDOI Secretary Ryan Zinke highlighted the following issues in his testimony:

  • Deferred maintenance backlog of over $16 billion
  • The budget for USDOI, excluding the Bureau of Reclamation, includes $1.9 billion for construction and deferred maintenance.
  • Proposes establishing a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund with revenues from increased energy leasing on federal lands.
  • Realignment of service area boundaries to create common Department-level regions
  • The budget proposes $17.5 million for reorganization

Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), focused his opening statement on the alleged misuse of government resources by Secretary Zinke related to office remodeling and travel costs.  In general, Committee Democrats raised strong objection to Interior proposals to expand oil and gas exploration and to eliminate or reduce the size of national monuments.  In response to the policy issues, Zinke expressed that these decisions are being guided by open discussions with local, state and federal stakeholders with a stated goal to safeguard America’s energy independence while protecting the nation’s natural resources.

Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA), asked Zinke if he plans to commit $20 million in WIIN Act funds to begin enlargement of the Shasta Dam and Reservoir in Northern California. Huffman stated that expansion would violate California’s Wild and Scenic Law.  Zinke responded that the Administration’s budget proposal seeks continued funding for the Shasta Enlargement Feasibility Study and that the proposal, referenced by Huffman, is still under consideration.

House Committee Continues To Advance WRDA Renewal

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a hearing to review the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) 2017 and 2018 Reports to Congress on Future Water Resources Development and on the six Chief’s Reports that were submitted to Congress.  In the course of the hearing, Full Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) noted his priority to move a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) rewrite by year’s end.

Testifying before the Subcommittee were Assistant Secretary of the Army Civil Works R.D. James and Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, Commanding General and Chief of Engineers.

At the outset of the hearing, both Subcommittee Chairman Garrett Graves (R-LA) and Ranking Member Grace Napolitano (D-CA) emphasized the importance of providing reliable funding to support water resources infrastructure that is vital to the economy.

Throughout the hearing, Members asked the witnesses about the challenges facing USACE’s water infrastructure project processes like cost/benefit analysis of projects. In response, Semonite explained that a major issue is that USACE’s construction projects are typically multi-year projects, but USACE’s funding stream is reauthorized annually, which means the USACE’s project construction costs must be revalidated each year.  Semonite suggested that consideration be given to review the existing process and remove unnecessary bureaucratic layers in the process to expedite the approval process.

Legislative Activity This Week

H.R. 4465, Endangered Fish Recovery Program Extension Act of 2017 – The House passed the legislation on March 13, 2018.

New Legislation

 S. 2563, A bill to improve the water supply and drought resilience of the United States, and for other purposes. – Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)

H.R. 5264, To direct the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, provide grants to States to facilitate the acquisition of land, water, and interests therein, made to substantially improve, preserve, or maintain water quality for an area in perpetuity, and for other purposes. – Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA)

 S.2560, A bill to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to establish a program to facilitate the transfer to non-Federal ownership of appropriate reclamation projects or facilities, and for other purposes. – Sen. James Risch (R-ID)

Reports and Regulation

FY19 Title XVI Appropriations Stakeholder Letter – Letter to House and Senate Committee on Appropriations urging the Committees to reject proposed spending cuts to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Title XVI water recycling program.

USDA Secretary Sunny Perdue Statement on Rural Infrastructure  – Statement on the importance of investing in rural infrastructure, which includes rural water infrastructure.

Federal Emergency Management Agency strategic plan for 2018-2022 – Removes any mention of climate change.

Congressional letter to the Speaker of the House regarding the Land and Water Conservation Fund  – Letter from Republican House Members to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) advocating for the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

California Natural Resources Agency Letter to Congressional Leaders on the Shasta Dam and Reservoir Enlargement Project – Letter from the California Natural Resources Agency to House and Senate leadership expressing opposition to the Shasta Dam project.

California Does Not Want Towering Water Project (LA Times) – News story reporting on the political efforts to move forward on the Shasta Dam public works project in Northern California.

Snowpack levels continuing to decline in western US, foreshadowing water supply issues in the future – News story reporting on the continuing decline in snowpack levels in the West and how the continuing decline will impact the region’s future water resource supply. 

Representative LaMalfa says Shasta Dam raise is not a top priority – News article reporting on Representative Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) stating that raising the Shasta Dam is “not his top priority for water projects in Northern California.”

Congress Next Week

March 20, 2018

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – Hearing to Examine the President’s Budget Request for the Department of Energy for Fiscal Year 2019

House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure – Hearing on the Impacts of the 2017 Wildfires in the United States

March 21, 2018

House Committee on Natural Resources – Hearing on Examining the Proposed Fiscal Year 2019 Spending, Priorities and Missions of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Four Power Marketing Administrations

March 22, 2018

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – Hearing to Examine the 2018 Wester Water Supply Outlook and Bills Related to Water Infrastructure and Drought Resiliency