Here’s just the thing to cure your case of the holiday blues: a cold, hard analysis of budget numbers for federal water conservation programs. But don’t click away just yet! This may be one of the most consequential things happening in Washington, D.C., in December before the 113th Congress adjourns.
To bring you up to speed, Congress, as it has done so often in recent years, failed to finalize spending decisions by the beginning of the new fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2014). Since then the federal government has operated on a continuing resolution, or CR, a stop-gap measure that maintains the prior year’s funding levels. The current CR expires on Dec. 11, 2014. Congress must pass a spending bill by then or risk shutting down the federal government. The incoming Republican majority has a strong desire to get spending decisions off the table now so they can focus on higher priority issues starting in January, but major disagreements still exist – both between the two parties and the House and Senate – so another CR may be necessary.
Assuming that Congress can reach an agreement on a spending bill for the rest of fiscal year 2015, it will be based upon the respective House and Senate proposals summarized below. Therefore, if you want to know about the future of water conservation funding in 2015, keep reading.
Bureau of Reclamation: First-time chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Mike Simpson deserves credit for producing a bill that is more favorable towards water conservation than previous House bills. His bill largely matches what the administration requested, which is about a 5 percent increase over current levels. Where Rep. Simpson disagrees with the administration, it is with a modest 2 percent decrease compared to the request. The one exception is the San Joaquin River Restoration Fund, which the House, as it has done in the past, refuses to fund.
On the Senate side, Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein continues her pattern of strong water conservation funding. Her bill matches the administration’s request except where she significantly exceeds it and includes a heavy investment in drought response: Overall WaterSMART funding is up 120 percent, funding for WaterSMART Grants is more than tripled and the Drought Response and Comprehensive Drought Plans program is increased by an order of magnitude. The bill also includes an extra $67 million not reflected in the chart above: $12 million for Fish Passage and Fish Screens, $35 million for Water Conservation and Delivery and $20 million for Environmental Restoration and Compliance.
The TRCP recently wrote to Congress with some sportsmen-conservation partners to commend both the House and Senate for their proposals and to ask that final spending decisions look more like the more sportsmen friendly Senate proposal.
Prediction: Sen. Feinstein has gotten her way in the past. Count on her to get it again, especially since California’s historic drought has been front page news since summer and she’s about to hand off the chairwoman’s gavel to her Republican counterpart.
Fish and Wildlife Service: Within the Fish and Wildlife Service, the House and Senate are largely of one mind on funding. Each FWS program in the Sportsmen’s Water Budget is flat-funded or receives a small increase over current funding levels. The one exception is the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, which both houses cut. The cuts come mostly from the part of CESCF used for land acquisitions, with the Senate taking a particularly dim view towards land acquisition grants to states.
In addition, though both houses fund the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program at the same amount (and increase it over the requested level), the House places a stronger emphasis within that amount on competitive grants over formula grants to states. The House believes this will encourage multiple states to work together and with the FWS to conserve species named in settlement agreements so that an Endangered Species Act listing becomes unnecessary.
Prediction: This looks like a likely candidate for splitting the difference.
Environmental Protection Agency: The big ticket item at EPA is the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (not shown in the chart above due to scale). The House matches the requested level while the Senate adds an additional 42 percent to stay even with current funding levels (about $1.5 billion).
When it comes to geographic programs at the EPA, both houses fund them above the requested level, but only the Senate includes more funding than they currently receive. Specifically, both houses want to see an increase over the requested amount for the Great Lakes, while the Senate is friendlier to programs for the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and Lake Champlain, and the new program for Southern New England Estuaries (represented as “Other” in the chart above).
Both houses reject the requested increase in the Nonpoint Source (Sec. 319) Grants but stay even with current funding levels. Also, both houses reject the requested increase in the Wetlands Program: the Senate stays even with current funding but the House cuts it even further. The Wetlands Program includes the Clean Water Act Section 404 regulatory program, which is particularly controversial in Congress right now due to the ongoing rulemaking effort to clarify Clean Water Act jurisdiction.
Prediction: The administration consistently submits a low request for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund knowing Congress will restore its funding; this year shouldn’t be any different. Also, outgoing chair of the full appropriations committee Sen. Mikulski of Maryland will get her funding for the Chesapeake Bay. The real fight at EPA will be over policy riders, of which the House will ask for many.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: There aren’t any obvious trends in the competing proposals for water conservation at NOAA. Both the House and Senate come in under the administration’s request for Protected Species Research and Management, but they are also both above the current funding level. While the House severely cuts spending for Habitat Conservation and Restoration, the Senate boosts it past current funding levels and the administration’s request. Both houses exceed the administration’s request for Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund to keep it even with current spending.
Prediction: Another candidate for splitting the difference.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: In the post-earmark era where Congress has less ability to affect spending on any specific Corps project, both the House and Senate proposals match the administration’s request for projects included in the Sportsmen’s Water Budget. As a result, those line items are excluded from the chart above.
As for the rest of the Corps, both houses put considerably more money into so-called Continuing Authority Programs than requested because, according to the House, a CAP “provides a useful tool for the Corps to undertake small localized projects without the lengthy study and authorization process typical of most larger Corps projects.” (The Senate feels the same.) Both houses more than triple the requested amount for Project Modifications for Improvement of the Environment (Section 1135) and more than double the amount requested for Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration (Section 206).
Prediction: It’s good to be a CAP.