Summary of Hearings on Water (12-20-05)
On December 6, 2005, the House Conservation, Credit, Rural Development and Research Subcommittee met to discuss the future of the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) watershed programs, including the Watershed Surveys and Planning, Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Operations, Watershed Rehabilitation, and Emergency Watershed Protections Programs. The hearing's opening statements made it clear that these programs are very important to many of the subcommittee members and their constituents, and that there is a great deal of concern about administration efforts to cut funding for the programs. Subcommittee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said that he had been making annual visits to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to encourage sustained funding for the watershed programs. "You've got to push while we pull," he told Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) chief Bruce Knight, who was the hearing's lead witness. Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) discussed the large backlog of authorized but unfunded water storage and flood protection projects, and argued that it was "unfair to keep projects guessing about whether they will receive funding."
In his testimony, Knight praised the watershed programs, but also said that earmarks for specific projects were so numerous that the programs were essentially beyond his agency's control. "We have been administering a program that is nearly 100% earmarked and that poses some serious problems," he said, arguing that the NRCS was no longer able to set priorities for the watershed program. Despite this problem, Knight told the committee that during his tenure the NRCS had been able to reduce the project backlog so that one out of three projects, as opposed to one in eight, were funded. Knight also discussed administration funding cuts for the programs, although he tried to portray them in as positive a light as possible. "I want to say unequivocally that zero funding does not mean zero support," he said. "But it is time to re-think our watershed programs." Knight then argued that by eliminating duplication between watershed programs and other USDA programs, and by using rapid watershed assessments, the NRCS could increase the efficiency of its watershed work without increasing funding.
Many subcommittee members did not share Knight's optimism about the future of the programs with reduced funding however. Representative Stephanie Herseth (D-SD) said that she feared there could be a reverse in the trend of a diminishing backlog, with the number of funded projects decreasing from 1 in 3 to 1 in 8. Representative Ed Case (D-HI) discussed a project in his district that had been authorized since 1972, but had still not received funding, and said that the completion of longstanding projects should be made a priority. Knight said that there were many such longstanding projects, and that his agency was working to characterize them in order to determine where action was still needed, as well as where land use changes had made the projects obsolete. Chairman Lucas, meanwhile, again urged Knight to make the watershed programs a priority, and said that "earmarking is not a problem that can't be overcome."
The second panel of witnesses included representatives from several
organizations that advocate for water storage, flood control, and
watershed restoration projects. The general theme of their testimony
was a call for increased funding for USDA watershed programs and limits
on earmarking. Ed Wytovich, from the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition
for Mine Reclamation, gave more specific testimony focusing on the
need to clean up acid mine drainage in his region, which damages local
watersheds and the Chesapeake Bay. The major questions for this panel
focused on the level of cooperation between local and federal agencies
in completing watershed projects, and the witnesses made it clear
that local groups were being asked to do more than was fair. "The
local portion of dollars is much greater," said Bill Wilson of
the National Association of Conservation Districts. "We are lacking
the federal share."
Full hearing testimony, including written statements from witnesses are available at the House Agriculture Committee website.
On July 19th, 2005, the House Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing on "Maintaining and Upgrading the Bureau of Reclamation's Facilities to Improve Power Generation, Enhance Water Supply and Keep our Homeland Secure". The hearing focused on the challenges that are facing the Bureau of Reclamation and local water authorities in maintaining the aging water storage infrastructure that supplies water and power to millions of users across the west. Hearing witnesses expressed concern that the maintenance of aging dams and other water storage facilities was being neglected, potentially creating economic and safety hazards in many western communities.
"Without question, the Bureau of Reclamation needs adequate funding to maintain its facilities," said Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich (R-CA) in his opening statement, adding, however, that "with limited federal funds, we need to find creative solutions together."
The witnesses, representing a diverse group of western water users, generally agreed with Radanovich's concerns and offered the committee their own advice about how to solve the funding shortfall. Thomas F. Donnelly, Executive Vice President of the National Water Resources Association, testified that Bureau of Reclamation infrastructure maintenance needs can be divided roughly into two categories: "multi-purpose" projects that have adequate repayment capacity and "single purpose" irrigation projects that were initially heavily subsidized such that the current beneficiaries lack the resources to repay the costs of modernization.
Despite the fact that many dams generate enough electricity and sell enough stored water to pay for maintenance and upgrading, significant barriers exist that make maintenance fiscally challenging. For example, as Donnelly testified, all maintenance construction on power-generating dams must currently be paid for in full from electricity revenues in the year construction occurs. However, for major construction to upgrade or retrofit a dam, it may make better fiscal sense to allow repayment over many years with only moderate price increases for electricity consumers.
Suggestions from Donnelly and others to ensure efficient infrastructure project financing included a federal loan guarantee program, congressional authorization for a new maintenance and rehabilitation program, and title transfer to local water and power agencies. Title transfer would allow private financing for facility maintenance, which is currently prohibited for federally owned infrastructure.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys recommended that the bureau be allowed to keep and reallocate more of the money its dams generate. Currently, the bureau must send the money to the federal treasury only to have it be partially returned through the appropriations process. "Having the flexibility to take maintenance action more quickly can actually hold down costs and deliver the project benefits more reliably and predictably," Keys testified.
The hearing testimony indicated that single-purpose dams with low revenue generation represent a more intractable problem. Donnelly suggested that major federal funds would be needed to fix these types of facilities, reminding the committee that the economic and human impacts of dam failure would be dramatic.
Neither the witnesses nor the legislators in attendance discussed proposals to decommission western dams for environmental or economic reasons. The hearing witnesses expressed strong support for the continued life of water storage infrastructure, saying that the existence and prosperity of many western communities depend heavily on the water and power supplied by Bureau of Reclamation facilities. Commissioner Keys was also careful to emphasize, however, that the Bureau of Reclamation was intent on "finding ways to conserve natural resources, such as fish and wildlife, without reducing availability of water for agriculture and communities."
Full hearing testimony, including written statements from witnesses representing several local water authorities, can be found on the House Resources Committee website.
On July 12, 2005, the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee met to discuss six different bills related to water resources, including a bill that would extend major drought relief legislation that was enacted in 1991. The five other bills addressed specific water storage and conservation projects planned for Oregon, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Alaska. Witnesses from the Department of the Interior were called in to offer their input regarding the feasibility of each bill, as many of the bills would affect U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Bureau of Reclamation research and operations. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Gordon Smith (R-OR), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) were present to submit statements supporting the bills related to their individual states. The committee did not set a date to vote on any of the bills.
Bill S.648, introduced by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), would extend Title I of the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act of 1991 until the year 2010. The original 1991 law established a Drought Program and a Drought Contingency plan that authorized the Secretary of the Interior to undertake construction projects, to conduct studies to identify opportunities for water conservation, and to provide technical assistance to state, local, and tribal governments for the development and operation of water desalinization projects. Like the original bill, Title I of S. 648 would authorize the Bureau of Reclamation to participate in groundwater storage projects, facilitate water aqcuisitions between willing buyers and sellers, make facilities available for storage and transport of water, and acquire water for fish and wildlife purposes on a nonreimbursable basis. John Keys, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, testified that the bureau supports S.648 because of a "flexibility" that will enable managers to comply with the Endangered Species Act without violating state water rights.
Dr. Holland-Bartels of the USGS testified against two bills concerning water supply in the State of Alaska, saying that both would be too costly. Bill S.49, introduced by Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), would establish a joint Federal-State Floodplain and Erosion Mitigation Commission for the state. Holland-Bartels declined to support S.49 because a cost-benefit analysis showed the costs would be much higher than the benefits. However on the second panel, Edgar Blatchford, Commissioner of the Department of Community and Economic Development stated that "a joint Federal-State Floodplain and Erosion Mitigation Commission is long over due." Blatchford testified that his department supports the bill as it would establish a more coordinated decision-making process to ensure that expensive development is not undertaken on erosion-prone areas.
The second bill, S.1338, requires the Bureau of Reclamation and the USGS to conduct a study of groundwater resources in Alaska under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior. The study would include a survey of accessible water supplies on the Kenai Peninsula, in the city of Anchorage, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. USGS would be required to review streamflow information collected over previous years to determine if a greater database is needed for Alaska. In her testimony, Dr. Holland-Bartels again expressed funding concerns for the project. Because the USGS already has a National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP) that accumulates much of the same streamflow information that would be required by S.1338, Holland-Bartels suggested that the proposed bill should be modified to be less duplicative of existing programs and thus more cost-effective.
The other three bills received mixed reviews from the Bureau of Reclamation. A bill (S.247) to authorize the development of a water conservation project in a farming district near Bend, Oregon came under scrutiny by the Bureau's John Keys for including an inaccurate credit system. Despite this shortcoming, Elmer McDaniels, Manager of the local Tumalo Irrigation District, maintained that the $5.4 million piping project will ease the impacts of an on-going drought by returning 20 cubic feet per second of conserved water to the in-stream flows. Keys expressed support for two other bills, S. 819 and S. 891, which were crafted to meet growing municipal, industrial, and wildlife water needs in and around Rapid City, South Dakota, and in a major irrigation district in North-central Nebraska.
On June 29, 2005, a hearing on "The Global Water Crisis: Evaluating U.S. Strategies to Enhance Access to Safe Water and Sanitation" was held by the House International Relations Committee. The hearing focused on a proposal presented earlier this year by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Blumenauer proposed H.R.1973, the "Water for the Poor Act of 2005" that aims to enhance water and sanitation access in developing countries while making the issue a specific policy goal for the United States. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) opened the hearing by reciting some shocking statistics on global water issues, stating "water-related illnesses claim the life of one child approximately every 8-15 seconds, killing an average of 3,000-5,000 children a day and up to 5 million people annually the equivalent of full seating capacity at Yankee Stadium multiplied by 87." All seven of the witnesses at the hearing attested that "Water for the Poor" is a much needed solution to the global water crisis. When Blumenauer asked the witnesses if they had any suggestions to fine-tune the legislation, Assistant Secretary of State, John Turner, simply answered "No."
Vanessa Tobin from UNICEF reports that water and sanitation programs have improved since 1990, allowing over 1 billion people to gain access to improved drinking water and sanitation facilities. However, in her testimony she reports that 2.6 billion people, over half of the world's developing population, lack adequate sanitation facilities and 1.1 billion people still use water from unclean sources. Turner mentioned that "over 50% of the world's hospital beds are filled with patients suffering from water-related illnesses." If the world invested money in safer drinking water and sanitation, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that nearly $90 billion would be saved annually.
Questions focused on what new technologies could be implemented to decrease illness and mortality rates in developing countries with inadequate water and sanitation systems, and which areas have the greatest need. Tobin suggested that low-cost technology, like water pumps, improved wells and rain catchers, could be implemented in these countries. Dabelko commented that implementing these technologies will make other programs in the health, agriculture, education, economic development, and conflict prevention sectors more effective.
When Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS) asked the witnesses which area of the world was in the greatest need of water and sanitation, Africa was the unanimous response. According to Tobin, in sub-Saharan Africa about " 42% of the population did not have easy access to a safe water supply, and about 64% did not have access to basic sanitary facilities." The HIV/AIDS epidemic is also intricately linked to the water and sanitation crisis, because diarrhea affects the immune system and causes the most deaths among people living with AIDS. According to Tobin, Africa has seen the most school dropouts among girls because they have the responsibility of walking a considerable distance to fetch water for the household.
Hyde mentioned that the U.S. involvement with safe water and sanitation programs arises not only out of a humanitarian need, but also because the crisis threatens global development and national security. Hyde said, "safe water is a vital strategic resource, and there can be no sustainable development or long-term security without it." Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) agreed with Hyde, indicating that we should not deliver aid solely to countries that need it the most, but rather to countries from which we can gain additional benefits like national security. Even though panelists agreed that Africa was a continent in serious need of help, other regions like Asia, the Middle East and Latin America are also facing a water and sanitation crisis, so funding for water and sanitation programs should be distributed based on immediate need and other longer-term benefits.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) from the Appropriations Committee stopped in at the end of the hearing, to question how appropriations have been spent to solve the water and sanitation crisis. Over the past two years, the House Appropriations Committee has earmarked $100 million for water projects in Africa; to date USAID has only spent $17 million of the allotted funds. In the future, Culberson hopes to work with crisis-relief programs to come up with a way to ensure that appropriate funding is granted and used accordingly.
For the written testimonies of the witnesses at this hearing, click here.
The Water and Power Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee met on April 13, 2005 to address the role of new surface and groundwater storage in meeting water supply needs and drought concerns, especially in western states. Local water policy-makers and managers testified about the strain of sustained drought and urban growth on their districts, current water supply projects, and legal and financial obstacles for the federal government to consider.
Members of the Subcommittee wanted to find the most effective and affordable solution to meet water supply needs on a local basis. "I want to make sure that we all agree that all of the West's water needs cannot be solved by building new or bigger dams," said Representative Grace Napolitano (D-CA) in her opening statement.
Witnesses' solutions for meeting supply needs in Arizona, Wyoming, and central and southern California varied from building a single additional supply method, such as a dam, to instituting a broad water management plan. John Sullivan from the Salt Water Project in Arizona said urban growth in Phoenix requires new surface and groundwater storage in addition to new water supplies and conservation technologies. Mario Santoyo, who represents 15,000 water users in the San Joaqin River Basin of California, said that in his area, a dam is "the only solution" for keeping up with growth in nearby towns. John Stoval of California's Kern City Water Agency agreed that efforts such as aquifer recharge and groundwater banking work best as a complement to surface water storage when meeting large-scale demand.
Stoval went on to describe groundwater banking as an excellent method of long-term storage, particular when it is used for gradual extraction. But he said it requires specific conditions in order to be successful, including sandy soils for fast percolation and easy extraction, facilities available to bring water in from multiple sources and to deliver it out to multiple users, and good cooperation among local agencies and managers.
Virginia Grebbien of the Orange County Water District in Southern California advocated against the construction of dams in favor of innovative solutions, including groundwater banking projects, which are much less expensive and easier to permit. Such solutions are critical because "Californians do not have the luxury of time" to depend on the construction of more traditional, large-scale solutions. According to Grebbien, water recycling shows enormous potential, as $1 billion worth of waste water is released to the Pacific Ocean every day in the Los Angeles area.
Representative Napolitano asked the panel what role the federal government should play in financing new storage projects, in particular what cost-sharing model would be most appropriate. Santoya suggested that a benefit analysis would allow government agencies to draw the correct balance between beneficiary payments and federal funding. But Sullivan said that with large projects, beneficiaries change, necessitating the development of new cost-sharing models. Both witnesses agreed that the federal government must play a central role in the permitting and planning stages of new storage projects to get them off the ground. Stoval added that when done correctly, the environmental benefits of such projects justify significant federal participation.
Panel 2: Future of the Bureau of Reclamation
Panel 3: Indian and Federal Reserved Water Rights
Panel 4: Conservation and Technological Developments/Knowledge
of Water Resources
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee invited 22 groups to offer "bold and innovative solutions" for water resource issues and for improving the federal water bureaucracy. At the start of the hearing, committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) stated that the committee chose the final proposals from over 130 submissions. He plans to include the best policies in upcoming legislation.
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the committee's ranking member, said he hoped the hearing would address the disconnect between the public's level of concern over water problems and the level of concern shown in Washington. Budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Geological Survey all received cuts to their water programs in the President's budget proposal for FY 2006. Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) called the current federal water establishment "chaos," and pressed for swift action, quoting Benjamin Franklin: "when the well is dry, we know the worth of water."
Among the first panel of witnesses, conservationists, agriculturalists, and state water resources officials offered several proposals for addressing storage issues, distribution, conservation, and water "diversity" through the use of desalinization and purification techniques. Panelists advocated for increasing regional, integrated and collaborative water management programs such as CalFed, Colorado River Management, and conservation efforts such as those in the lower Colorado River, the Mississippi and San Francisco Bay deltas, and the everglades. Above all, regulatory processes must protect local interests, said Rod Kuharich from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Regarding the role of the federal government, recommendations were more varied. John Tracy from the Idaho Department of Water Resources was first to ask the central question: "Who is setting the research agenda for solving problems and developing technology?" More directly, Senator Bingaman asked the panel whether a national water commission could meet the nation's planning needs. No national assessment of water resources has been made in 30 years, according to a representative from the American Water Resources Association, who supports such a commission. Other witnesses hedged their support by urging the federal government be no more than a "facilitator," or "back-stop" for projects initiated at the watershed or aquifer level, including interstate projects.
"We don't need another national policy commission, but there is a role for the federal government, and that is to provide research and data," said Melinda Kassen with Trout Unlimited. Several panelists urged that increased funding for federal agencies that conduct surface and groundwater research and monitoring is paramount to the national agenda. "We have got to stop the erosion of federal funding for the USGS stream-gauging program," said William Mullican of the Texas Water Development Board. Kassen also recommended that, in addition to filling data gaps, the federal government should be a key partner in environmental protection.
In the second panel, witnesses testified that the Bureau of Land Management should continue to play a vital role in maintaining dams and other infrastructure, managing water distribution among agricultural and urban communities, settling water rights claims, and jumpstarting conservation projects. But when it came to research and development for technologies such as water recharge, reuse, purification and desalination, witnesses suggested that facilities under the Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers should lead such efforts. Others suggested that it would be wise to involve the expertise within the USGS, EPA, or NOAA's fisheries program for water technology development.
Chairman Domenici organized the hearing primarily to consider the
economic viability of such technological solutions, which are currently
under development by the Bureau of Reclamation and private industry.
"The pace [of development] could be accelerated with additional
funding" said Colin Sabol of General Electric Co., which has
invested $300 million a year to explore ways to reduce reliance on
surface and groundwater supplies. He said that while desalination
may never be as cost effective as waste or brackish water treatment,
its cost could be reduced under a federal program. Domenici said he
may reintroduce legislation soon, that provides additional financial
support for such technological solutions.
Sources: Hearing testimony and E&E Daily.
Contributed by Katie Ackerly, AGI Government Affairs Program; Amanda Schneck, AGI/AIPG 2005 Summer Intern; Anne Smart, AGI/AIPG 2005 Summer Intern; John Vermylen AGI/AIPG 2005 Summer Intern; Peter Douglas, AGI/AAPG 2005 Fall Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on December 12, 2005.