Earlier this month, Congress passed and the President signed a huge, wide-ranging bill to fund the federal government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2015. At a little over $1 trillion, the so-called CRomnibus spends a ton of money, and at more than 1600 pages, it uses a ton of words. Daunting as they are, spending bills like this one are important not only for the money they spend, but also for substantive “riders,” which have become relatively more important as Congress has found it increasingly hard to pass any meaningful legislation. Against my better judgment, I went looking for the part of the CRomnibus that funds the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, knowing that it would contain some potentially interesting (for me at least) water policy provisions.
The Corps of Engineers section (pp. 431-445) is where the real money is, because while the Corps’ roughly $5 billion budget is modest by Pentagon standards, it dwarfs that of Reclamation. A few items from the Corps section are interesting from a policy standpoint. It directs the Corps to begin the study process for 10 potential new projects (“new starts”), of which 7 must be primarily transportation or flood control projects, and 3 must be primarily environmental restoration projects. (This kind of Congressional direction to emphasize the agency’s traditional mission ensures that the Army Corps of Engineers does not drift further into eco-radicalism.) On the regulatory side, the bill blocks the Corps from taking certain actions to toughen regulations under Clean Water Act section 404, and orders the Corps (and EPA) to withdraw guidance interpreting section 404 which had drawn objections from farm groups and some states. Regarding western rivers, the bill denies any funding for a ecosystem restoration study of the Missouri River system authorized by Congress in 2007, but allows (without actually providing) up to an additional $18.4 million for studies of measures to improve the survival of salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin.
The Reclamation section (pp. 446-455) delivers less money–about $1 billion–and less policy direction, but a few of the substantive provisions are noteworthy. One allows (without actually providing) up to an additional $100 million for the Bureau’s program of grants and cooperative agreements under the SECURE Water Act; these grants can help fund water conservation projects, ecosystem restoration efforts intended to benefit rare species, and other activities. A second provision revives (but authorizes no additional money to implement) expired portions of the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act, which as I noted in my 2012 DoubleWhammy article, has important authorities that Reclamation could use to help western rivers and water users endure droughts. The final section allows the Bureau to “fund or participate in pilot projects to increase Colorado River System water in Lake Mead” and Upper Basin federal reservoirs “to address the effects of historic drought conditions.” This authority allows Reclamation to provide grants for certain non-federal projects, or for renewing or implementing existing “water conservation agreements.”
What do these provisions suggest regarding Congress and water policy, especially for the West? I draw two lessons from the CRomnibus. First, the recently departed Congress believed that it was still necessary and appropriate to invest federal dollars in solving water-related problems, as shown by the “new starts” direction to the Corps, the new authorization for SECURE Water Act grants, and the authority for Colorado River Basin pilot projects. Second, some in Congress sought to block certain of the Administration’s environmental initiatives, and saw the must-pass spending bill as the best way to do it; this view is reflected in the Corps provisions on the Missouri and section 404, but perhaps most dramatically by a more famous provision (p. 725) barring the Fish & Wildlife Service from listing certain sage grouse populations under the Endangered Species Act.
But, of course, the CRomnibus was the last major action of the infamously divided and unproductive 113th Congress. What about the 114th, which will see both houses return to Republican control? I think it’s very safe to say that the second theme of the CRomnibus–blocking environmental efforts that the GOP opposes–will be a major focus of water policy in the next Congress. As for the first theme–federal action and investment directed toward resolving the biggest and most serious water problems–the immediate future is far less clear. The majority in the next Congress generally sees the federal government as the problem, not the solution, and that’s especially true when it comes to water in the West. Will the new Congress still believe in directing federal agencies and dollars to help address the region’s most important and urgent water problems? We shall see.