Thursday, August 27, 2009

Federal Water Interests

Seems our federal government is getting much more active in water these days. Last year two bills were introduced to work on the process of developing a national water policy. S. 2728 and H.R. 135 both propose the creation of a new group called the "Twenty-first Century Water Commission" - a group of federally appointed folks who are to study and develop recommendations for a comprehensive water strategy for future water needs. Similar in scope and nature, S. 2728 calls for a 9-member commission appointed by the President, Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader. They are provided $9 million and are given 3-years to make their recommendations.

H.R. 135 is an 11-member group appointed by the President, the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader, the Minority Leader of the House and the Minority Leader of the Senate who are to be provided $12 million and be given 5 years to work their magic. While there is much borrowed language between these bills, H.R. 135 has far more detail as to what is to be studied. In both cases, there is much that the states and local water folks should be concerned about.

And just making its way into the process this year is the current working draft of a new bill (not numbered as of yet) called the "Sustainable Watershed Planning Act". This calls for a new federal agency - the Office of Sustainable Watershed Management (OSWM) to do much the same stuff - only with far more layers of boards and commissions, and a lot more money - $30 million/yr for the OSWM, and $250 million/yr for this group to entice their partners (states, locals, tribes, stakeholders and other interested entities) to see their vision. The Director of OSWM is slated to become the new and singular, federal water czar. There is even more to be concerned about in this draft bill.

There is the expected obligatory language that the planning groups (3, nested layers) are to consider state & local management activities, and are to be respectful of state water laws and state water jurisdictional responsibilities, but it never says these are exclusive to the states as they virtually are now. It even mentions that personal water rights cannot be affected - from transboundary aquifers only. This bill draft actually looks eerliy familiar to the earlier (failed) Western Water Policy Review Commission (WWPRC) effort of 1997. It also has a long way to go in my opinion.

On the positive side, if the federal OSWM and its nested boards could be trusted to share your state's water visions, there will be a lot of money available to implement many worthwhile programs - for the 10 pilot basins selected by the Director. This selection process probably won't be political at all, so it's a no-brainer that we should all jump on board and support this bill. Oh, and in his or her spare time, the Director is also charged with crafting a national water policy overarching everything. If you are interested in water, you should have a look.

One last point. As H.R. 135 was being debated, some wanted to revisit the work of a similar effort back in the late 1960's - that of the National Water Commission (NWC). The following is from that report:

While many support better coordination of federal water activities and a clearer national “vision” for water management, Congress has not enacted overarching water policy legislation since the 1965 Water Resources Planning Act. Instead, water policy has largely evolved through executive and judicial actions, in many cases in response to piecemeal legislation. Congress continually modifies federal water projects through amendments to existing projects and programs through Water Resources Development Acts (WRDAs), Reclamation acts, water quality legislation, and appropriations decisions. Incremental and ad hoc evolution of water policy, however, is not surprising. Water management is complicated by past decisions and investments affecting a wide range of stakeholders pursuing different goals. Specifically, federal and state laws and regulations, local ordinances, tribal treaties, contractual obligations, and economies dependent on existing water use patterns and infrastructure all affect water management. Attempts to untangle such complexities involve many constituencies with differing interests, and success is difficult to achieve. Expectations for a commission to achieve change in a complex system resistant to transformation may be unreasonable; instead, the influence of a commission may lie in how its recommendations combine with other drivers to support policy evolution.

I have to ask what has changed since 1973 and 1997 that makes me feel comfortable that a new, Twenty-first Century (federal) Water Commission has got the right handle on the complexities of water?

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