There’s an old saying that “water flows uphill towards money.” This means that those with the most money usually end up getting the water, even if it means pumping water uphill and over mountain ranges to do it. The saying reflects a frustration many people feel when they lose out to more well-heeled water users, especially in times of drought.
Now, based on an initial review of data in the Sportsmen’s Water Budget, there might be a new corollary that also is especially frustrating in this current drought: “Money for water is going downhill.”
In case you missed the initial launch and description, the “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” tracks federal programs that impact water resources conservation at seven federal agencies: the Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Each agency has programs that can enhance freshwater resources. They vary widely in goals, focus and size. For example, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund at EPA capitalizes state revolving loans that finance public wastewater system infrastructure improvements. It receives between $1.5 billion and $2 billion each year but only a small portion of that goes to enhancing the freshwater resources hunters and anglers enjoy.
At another end of the spectrum, the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund at FWS is the most important funding mechanism for the conservation of waterfowl habitat across North America. It receives about $35 million each year – nearly 60 times smaller than the CWSRF – but nearly all of that money goes to improving the health and integrity of wetlands.
Such wide discrepancies between programs included in the Sportsmen’s Water Budget means that a top-level analysis of water conservation funding will gloss over important distinctions between agencies and programs. Nevertheless, the aggregate federal investment in water conservation programs can give us a sense of the relative priority water conservation has in federal budget decisions.
Here, I look at the baseline years 2010-2014 where we have nearly final spending data, and only consider the total funding for all programs over the five-year period.
Over this period, total water conservation spending has averaged about $6.6 billion per year, with a high of $7.0 billion (2011) and a low of $6.3 billion (2013). Year-to-year fluctuations are dramatic – up 5 percent one year then down 6.5 percent the next – but over the whole period funding is down 1 percent, or $66 million.
A decrease in spending over the last five years isn’t surprising. This follows the trend in overall federal spending. After the economic collapse of 2008-09, Congress instituted austere budget restrictions designed to reel in deficits. Fortunately, the drop in water conservation spending is less severe than the corresponding drop in overall spending. According to data from the Office of Management and Budget, non-defense discretionary spending, the broad budget category to which water conservation belongs, has gone down 5 percent over the same time period (2010-2014). That water conservation spending hasn’t suffered as much indicates that these programs have been a relative priority for lawmakers determined to cut spending.
A one percent drop in water conservation spending may not sound that bad but the picture gets bleaker after adjusting for inflation. In constant 2010 dollars, water conservation funding in 2014 is roughly $6.0 billion, down 9 percent from 2010. Again, this compares favorably to overall non-defense discretionary spending, which has declined 13 percent over the last five years after adjusting for inflation. Nevertheless, at a time of historic drought across the West, this means we have lost $625 million in purchasing power over five years for efforts to make the most out of every drop of water we have. That kind of decline could be sowing the seeds of trouble as climate change and population growth exacerbate current water supply problems.
There is reason to be hopeful about the future. Several years of slow but steady economic recovery are finally easing some of the fiscal constraints of the Great Recession; for example, water conservation spending was up 5 percent in 2014 over the previous year. And after seemingly endless omnibus spending bills, continuing resolutions and other budgetary standoffs that culminated in a shutdown of the federal government, Congress was able to complete a budget and appropriations process for fiscal year 2014. However, this year’s election is complicating the chances for a repeat for fiscal year 2015.
 In this context, water conservation refers to federal programs that have improvement of freshwater aquatic habitat, including aquatic species restoration, as a primary goal, or the ability to increase flows or wetland acres. There are other important federal actions that influence water conservation, such as research or data collection, but the “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” focuses on programs that have the ability to directly and immediately enhance freshwater resources.
 For example, while 60 percent of water conservation programs had their budgets cut by an average of $43 million from 2010-2014, one program – the Conservation Stewardship Program at NRCS – had its budget increase $689 million over the same period, masking significant decreases in CWSRF and EPA’s geographic programs like Great Lakes Restoration.