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A Wish List for Water Collaboration with the Biden‒Harris Administration

Lori Pottinger January 6, 2021
Photo - Stream of Gold, Sunset Landscape In California

Cooperation between California and the federal government was at a low ebb over the past four years. With a new administration in the nation’s capital, what should be top water priorities for collaboration between the state and the federal government? The PPIC Water Policy Center recently discussed this issue with a diverse group of experts:

  • Ann Bartuska, senior advisor, Resources for the Future, and former deputy undersecretary and chief scientist, USDA
  • Scott Berry, director of policy and government affairs, US Water Alliance
  • John Leshy, professor emeritus, UC Hastings College of Law, and former solicitor of the US Dept. of the Interior
  • Felicia Marcus, visiting fellow, Stanford University Water in the West, and former chair, State Water Board

Here is a summary of some of their remarks.

FELICIA MARCUS: I think water can be the great unifier. I’m hoping the new administration will focus not just on fixing aging infrastructure but also on prioritizing the mix of “gray” (engineered) and “green” (nature-based) infrastructure that we need to achieve clean water and healthy, vibrant communities and ecosystems. And of course a return to the basics like water quality and health-based standards on drinking water, which had been arrested or muted during the last four years. Finally, what I’m hoping to see in water and elsewhere is a big push to return to science and technological development to solve problems. It’s most economical for the federal government to take the lead to accelerate and spread the revolution in data, sensors, and big data management, and to widen access to broadband, to give a few examples that are important for managing water under a changing climate. I think we need a water-focused Manhattan project to deal not just with climate mitigation but also climate adaptation, which is very much about water.

SCOTT BERRY: The US Water Alliance is asking the new administration to take a “whole government approach” to federal water management, with a cross-agency strategy to align and coordinate agencies’ approach to water. This fits neatly into the Biden administration’s “build back better” theme. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to either reinforce old structures or build back in a smarter, more equitable, more resilient way. We think water is a really good starting point. Water can be this great unifier, and the way to progress, and I think that’s the key message to take to policy makers.

We’re working on policy recommendations for the new administration and Congress to consider that can help the water sector recover stronger. We’re asking them to make water safer—for example, by researching, restricting, and remediating “forever chemicals” (PFAs). We’re asking them to make water more affordable with some short term assistance programs for low-income customers, emergency relief for utilities, and help for utilities with equitable rate design. They can help make water smarter by prioritizing utility modernization. And they can help make water more resilient with big investments in climate and disaster relief programs as well as natural infrastructure programs. Each of these policy ideas is meant to make the water sector a stronger and more equitable force for delivering positive change.

JOHN LESHY: While I’m pessimistic about broad national consensus for federal lands and water policy changes, I am optimistic about local and regional deals worked out with the federal government, with plans that are taken to Congress for ratification or funding. If you look at the landscape over the past 25 years, a lot of these sorts of deals have happened. For example, on the Colorado River, the Trump Administration stood aside and let the states continue their cooperative effort of more than 20 years to avoid major catastrophes in the river’s management. The river has been under a lot of stress from over-allocation of its waters and long-term drought, and it’s become an important example of a very contentious water issue brought to successful cooperation by state leadership. In California, the Trump Administration policy regarding managing the Central Valley Project was kind of a throwback to the days where you could just pour more concrete and ignore endangered species, water quality degradation, and other impacts from water management. But I hope the new administration will quickly work to show that was a temporary aberration.

ANN BARTUSKA: For the nation’s forests and agriculture, the good news is we have a secretary nominee who knows USDA. The learning curve will be very flat, and there’s an opportunity to get on with important business that was halted under the Trump administration—especially around climate. The Obama administration’s USDA established a network of climate hubs as well as a strategy around climate mitigation. Some of the hubs are languishing and underfunded, but the infrastructure still exists. We can use them as a central point by region to facilitate exchange of info and technologies and to track climate change mitigation and adaptation. It should be really easy to get moving on those again.

Wildland fire is another area that we have to get our arms around. In California that means working on an interagency multi-lands approach and using the recently signed Shared Stewardship Agreement between the US Forest Service and the state. In the middle of all this is a growing recognition of the importance of source watershed management and protection, envisioned in the Healthy Watersheds California initiative. So how do you mitigate for wildland fire, do reforestation, and provide multiple benefits of water and wildlife habitat? I think the plans have been well-laid for this type of reengagement.

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