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Congress Avoids Government Shut-Down; Approves Budget Rebuffing Administration Austerity Priority

Weeks of negotiations between the House and Senate budget leadership culminated in bipartisan passage of the fiscal year 2018 Omnibus Spending legislation, H.R. 1625.  The bill’s passage reversed an Administration effort to seek $54 billion in domestic spending cuts and instead approved $117 billion more spending across all governmental programs that provided $63 billion more in domestic program spending.  The action signaled a shift in power as fiscal hawks, including the Freedom Caucus, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney lacked the political muscle to overcome political fatigue surrounding the months-long effort to finalize the fiscal year 2018 budget.

H.R. 1625’s passage and the White House statement that the President signed the measure into law means that Congress can now turn its attention to the fiscal year 2019 budget that must be finalized by October 1 to avoid a fiscal version of Groundhog Day.  Just a little more than five months remain in the fiscal year.  Despite the fact that federal agencies have been operating generally on a month to month budget allotment based on fiscal year 2017 budget levels, the $63 billion increase in domestic spending means that federal agencies will be in a position of moving some of the highest program appropriations levels since the stimulus bill over the next few months.

As passed and sent to the President, the bill provides key water and environmental infrastructure programs with major increases over past years’ spending commitments.  The core water infrastructure programs at USEPA will receive $1.6 billion for clean water needs and $1.1 billion for drinking water needs through the State Revolving Loan Fund Program.  The WIFIA low interest loan program receives $63 million with a statement that it should support approximately $6 billion in new projects.  Support for the National Estuary Program and Great Lakes Program will continue with a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars.  And in a direct response to efforts to eliminate grants to support protection of nation’s coastal resources, the BEACHES Act’s program is funded.  Superfund, the nation’s waste site cleanup program, which has been a priority for USEPA is provided more than a $1 billion to support cleanup efforts, implicitly endorsing Administrator Scott Pruitt’s priority to expedite site cleanups.  Within the Department of Agriculture, the rural water infrastructure program will benefit with a record shattering $993 million to provide communities with loans and grants to construct water and wastewater treatment facilities.

After several years of devastating wildfires around the country, Congress used the spending agreement to address funding needs.  Under the agreement, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior would be guaranteed $3.8 billion.  Additionally, a contingency fund of $2 billion per year through 2027 would be created to address increased firefighting needs.  And in a nod to proponents of improving forest health due to resiliency matters, the bill provides hundreds of millions of dollars to support federal and state efforts to conduct research, inventories of forestry health, and protection of municipal watersheds through collaborative partnerships among stakeholders.  The funding agreement also exempts approved collaborative partnerships to improve forest health from the NEPA process through a categorical exclusion.

The Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey also benefits under the agreement with a decision to fund USGS’ water monitoring programs.  The budget includes $74 million for monitoring the quality and quantity of water resources, including the all-important streamgage networks.  Within the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the budget endorses support for drought responses through a dramatic increase in funding of water recycling projects through WaterSmart and Title XVI.  Under the agreement, WaterSmart grants to communities to address water scarcity grows to $34 million and Title XVI water recycling program assistance grows to $54 million from a current level of $21 million.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to benefit from a congressional priority that the nation’s ports and harbors be maintained to ensure economic activity and to ensure that flood protection projects proceed without delays.  The spending provides more than $6 billion to address construction and maintenance needs.  This funding is in addition to the disaster assistance bill enacted in January that delivered more than $15 billion to USACE programs, bringing a cumulative budget in excess of $20 billion for the current budget year.

Western Water Supply Is The Focus For Senate Committee Hearing

On March 22, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to discuss the Western U.S. water supply outlook and three bills related to water infrastructure and drought resiliency.  Testifying before the committee were USDOI Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Timothy Petty; Derek Sandison, Director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture; Patrick O’Toole, President of the Family Farm Alliance; Laura Ziemer, Senior Counsel and Water Policy Advisor for Trout Unlimited; Kathryn Sorensen, Director of the City of Phoenix, AZ, Water Services Department; and, Cindy Ortega, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer of MGM Resorts International.

The hearing considered S. 2563, sponsored by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), the Water Supply Infrastructure and Drought Resilience Act of 2018, S. 2539, a bill that would amend the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015, to reauthorize certain projects to increase Colorado River System water; and S. 2560, the Reclamation Title Transfer Act of 2018.  All three bills aim to address Western water supply issues through a variety of methods.

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) opened the hearing stating that recent weather-related droughts, particularly in California and the Colorado River Basin, have caused severe problems for communities.  Murkowski continued, saying that the solutions to these problems “starts, as always, with infrastructure,” which is especially true of water infrastructure in the West.  Murkowski firmly stated that the current aged water systems are not able to deliver crucial drought resilient water management services, and that solutions must be multifaceted to include permit process reforms and water conservation.

Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) echoed Murkowski’s remarks.  She noted that water management solutions must be based upon resilient and collaborative projects.  She highlighted the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (USBR) WaterSMART program as an example of such an effort.  Cantwell also stated the need to avoid strategies that result in multi-year litigation cycles.

In his testimony, Petty explained that limited water storage abilities can result in year-to-year operations of services.  Increased water storage would allow for facilities to capture more water during wet years, which would allow for increased water delivery during dry years.  Petty also said USDOI generally supports the three bills and directed Senators to his written testimony where he details his positions on the various bills’ provisions.

Ziemer’s testimony reiterated the need for new water resource infrastructure, but cautioned that new water storage alone is not a solution.  She referred the Yuba Accord (Yuba River, CA) as an example of successful water management, because it supplements existing water storage in the basin by utilizing a variety of water management practice strategies and alternative water supplies.  She highlighted the Accord’s groundwater recharge from the Yuba River flows during wet years to provide for sustainable groundwater pumping.

Cantwell questioned witnesses on what kinds of tools and solutions can be used to address water supply issues.  Ziemer explained that in her experience, the best solutions are those that are unique to each individual basin because no two basins are alike.  Secondly, a portfolio of projects is necessary.  A portfolio includes a variety of water supply projects from all stakeholders that are easier to permit and construct and have more immediate results, with the possibility of an ultimate goal of constructing surface water storage.  This type of project portfolio, she argued, can result in more effective water storage and water supply outcomes as it combines natural and artificial infrastructure.  Ziemer also noted that Trout Unlimited supports aquifer recharging as a low-cost water storage method, so long as it does not harm rivers’ natural peak flows.

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) asked Ziemer her opinion on water rights transfers.  Ziemer said that the practice of forced transfer of water rights was an overreach and contrary to the governance of water rights.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) asked Ziemer about her position on USBR’s WaterSMART program.  Ziemer explained that Trout Unlimited supports the program because it funds projects that are cost-effective and supports collaborative projects.

Flake explained that water supply and management is always at the forefront of Western states’ concerns.  Throughout the process of drafting S. 2563, Flake said he repeatedly heard from stakeholders on the need to fix existing assets, build new infrastructure, and create greater reliability, and certainty in the project planning and permitting processes for water resources projects.  He asked Sorensen about Arizona’s experience concerning the importance of maintaining diverse water supply management strategies.  Sorensen explained that to maintain a reliable water source, the state is proactive on acquiring the water resources years ahead of when the resources are needed, which includes the practice of reclaiming wastewater and reusing it.  Important to management success is the state’s careful consideration of water supply to the state’s economic and population growth.

New Legislation

H.R. 5325, To amend title 40, United States Code, to reauthorize regional economic and infrastructure development programs. – Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA)

S. 2586, A bill to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to increase the ability of a State to administer a permit program under that Act, and for other purposes. – Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)

S. 2585, A bill to amend the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 to permanently extend the authority of the Secretary of the Army to accept and expend funds from certain entities to process permits. – Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN)

H.Res. 794, Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the national parks, national forests, and public lands and waters of the United States contribute greatly to the economic and physical well-being of Americans and can be further improved by public-private partnerships. – Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL)

Agency Notices

Bureau of Reclamation has announced the following FY18 WaterSMART grant opportunities:

Water and Energy Efficiency Grants – Proposal due May 10, 2018

Projects that result in quantifiable water savings and those which support broader water reliability benefits

Water Marketing Strategy Grants – Proposal due July 18, 2018

Details will be posted on www.grants.gov – to access search for funding opportunity number BOR-DO-18-F010.

For entities exploring actions that can be taken to develop or facilitate water marketing

Small-Scale Water Efficiency Projects – Proposal due July 31, 2018.

For small-scale water management projects that have been identified through previous planning efforts.

Reports and Regulation

NOAA Report Linking Climate Change to Western US Heat Waves – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report identifying climate change to be the main cause for heat waves in Western US and Great Lakes regions in the future.

Wildfire Intensity Impacts Water Quality and Watersheds – Scientific report explains how wildfires can have predictable impacts on water quality and the treatment of forested watersheds.

Congress Next Week

Both chambers are on recess next week.