Federal Water Tap, January 19: EPA, Interior Confirmation Hearings Center on Federal Role

The Rundown

Senate committees question nominees for EPA and Interior. A futurist report from nation’s intelligence agencies considers the potential for water conflict. The Obama administration makes a final donation to a global climate development fund. A binational commission evaluates Great Lakes water quality progress. The outgoing Interior secretary issues a final order on the Colorado River Basin. And finally, a nominee to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Water today is a commodity and will be a more important commodity tomorrow.” — Rep. Ryan Zinke, the nominee to head the Interior Department, speaking about water in the American West at his confirmation hearing.

By the Numbers

$US 500 million: Grant to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations fund for financing low-carbon development. (State Department)

News Briefs

Interior Confirmation Hearing
Rep. Ryan Zinke, the Montana congressman nominated to run the Interior Department, admires Teddy Roosevelt. He mentioned the conservative icon repeatedly during his confirmation hearing.

“Teddy Roosevelt had the courage to look 100 years forward,” Zinke said in an exchange with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) about a review of federal coal leasing and mining practices. “I think we need to have the courage today to look 100 years forward and look back and say we did it right.”

Like many Republicans, balance between state and federal oversight seems to be Zinke’s interpretation of his Interior Department role. Balance, of course, is often in the eye of the beholder. The four-hour Q-and-A with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gave Zinke the opportunity to discuss how he would apply the concept to the central duties of the department: public lands access, federal-local relationships (“centralized direction, decentralized execution,” as he described it), and using public lands for conservation as well as energy development (he’s an “all-of-the-above” energy guy). Time constraints, however, often prevented deeper examination of particular policies or issues that affect the department’s diverse agencies: Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Office of Surface Mining, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey.

That was the case with water, an interest of several panel members.

Senators from Arizona and Nevada wondered whether Zinke would support drought planning on the lower Colorado River, where the Interior Department controls water contracts. Zinke gave a muddled non-answer, saying that there is a lot of water waste and that there must be more water storage and efficiency. He did not go into detail but he did commit to work with the states on drought plans.

The need for more storage was a response to another water question. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) asked if Zinke would protect state and private water rights and prevent “federal overreach.” (Gardner has criticized past attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to exert tighter control over groundwater and surface water rights on federal public lands.)

Zinke’s answer, again, lacked clarity. He said that water today is a “commodity” that will be a more important commodity in the future. He also committed to look at more storage and infrastructure investment and mentioned that aquifers are at risk, with no further explanation.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) pressed Zinke about his views on climate change. Sanders asked if Zinke believed, as President-elect Donald Trump has stated, that climate change is a hoax.

Zinke rejected that low-bar assertion. “I do not believe it a hoax,” he said. Zinke said he believes three things about climate change: that the climate is changing, that man has had an influence, and that there is a debate about what the influence is and what society can do about it. (He also trotted out the familiar “I’m not a scientist” line.)

His third tenet, that there is a debate about the extent of man’s influence and its effects, has become the new party line for Republicans who want to appear reasonable. Rex Tillerson, the Exxon CEO who is Trump’s nominee to lead the State Department, used a similar line during his confirmation hearing, as did Scott Pruitt, the EPA nominee, during his hearing. Such thinking is misleading and an indirect way of casting doubt that addressing climate change requires immediate action. The assertion also does not reflect the growing sophistication of climate models. If anything, scientists note, current modeling underestimates the danger of inaction.

EPA Confirmation Hearing
Much like Zinke, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, spoke about balance and partnership. Balance between what Congress authorizes and what the EPA does, and partnership with state regulators. The thrust of the six-hour hearing: what is the role of the federal government in environmental regulation? Pruitt indicated that he believes the federal government has stepped beyond its authority.

Pruitt, like Zinke during his Interior hearing, was asked about water, most frequently about the regulatory scope of the Clean Water Act. Pruitt responded that he wants more “certainty” for those that are regulated. Pruitt was sometimes wrong about details of federal water infrastructure programs. He referred to the state revolving funds and WIFIA as “grantmaking” entities. In fact, they are loan programs.

Pruitt, in response to Sen Ben Cardin (D-MD), said that he would support federal enforcement of the program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Pruitt praised the state-driven approach, even though he had joined a lawsuit against it. He also failed to mention that it was EPA pressure, drawn from a citizen lawsuit, that pushed the six states to an agreement.

Pruitt also said, in defense of this “cooperative federalism” between federal and state regulators, that state agencies have the “resources and expertise” for air and water. In many cases, this is not true. Because of budget cuts, state regulators often have fewer dollars and staff for environmental testing and enforcement. Massachusetts is one example. Policy observers also note that state regulators may hesitate to take action against a key industry, such as cattle farms in the Midwest or oil and gas operations in Oklahoma.

On climate change, Pruitt followed the party line described above, saying that mankind has indeed influenced the climate but the exact effects and outcomes are still up for debate.

On lead, Pruitt said that he is “very concerned about any level of lead” but “has not looked at scientific research on that.” He added that the EPA should have acted much sooner in Flint.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) hammered on Pruitt’s involvement in a lawsuit against poultry producers in neighboring Arkansas. The lawsuit was initiated by Pruitt’s predecessor but Pruitt dragged his feet on implementation after industry campaign donations, according to reports verified by StateImpact Oklahoma, a news agency.

“I worry about whose side you’re on,” Booker said.

Interior Seeks to Keep Colorado River Basin Negotiations On Track
To push multi-year negotiations on drought and water supply in the lower basin across the finish line, Secretary Sally Jewell issued a final agency order before the change in administration. The order directs Interior agencies to continue to work with lower basin states and Mexico to finalize several big agreements in the first half of 2017: a drought plan that will keep more water in Lake Mead and address the shrinking Salton Sea, a plan for the upper basin regarding Lake Powell, and an agreement with Mexico to coordinate drought and water conservation planning and provide water for the Colorado River delta.

Studies and Reports

Global Trends Report
Stress on natural resources, particularly water, is a prevailing theme in a report from the nation’s intelligence agencies that looks at possible global futures over the next two decades. The report cautions that past trends toward cooperation over water may not hold as scarcity, from groundwater depletion, drought, increasing pollution, or population growth, tests existing management agreements:

“Historically, water disputes between states have led to more sharing agreements than violent conflicts, but this pattern will be hard to maintain. Dam construction, industrial water pollution, and neglect or non-acceptance of existing treaty provisions aggravate water tensions, but political and cultural stress often play an even larger role.”

Great Lakes Water Quality Report
Canada and the United States have made “considerable progress” in implementing a 2012 Great Lakes water quality agreement but more needs to be done, according to a draft report from the independent body that assesses the performance of the two governments.

Successes, the report notes, include limiting the introduction of new invasive species, coordinating restoration priorities, and improving the health of wetlands

Agencies still need to address contamination from industrial chemicals and collaborate with communities. The algae-choked waters of Lake Erie are still a mess. The report suggests that mandatory, enforceable nutrient standards are needed in addition to voluntary measures.

Comments on the report are being accepted through April 15 and can be emailed to ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org.

On the Radar

Ag Secretary Nominee
Given the tenor of the confirmation hearings and the news that Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor, is the Agriculture secretary nominee, I will recirculate this Circle of Blue piece on opportunities for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for clean water and drinking water infrastructure.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.