Water is poised for prominence this year in state law and policy.

Lawmakers in Phoenix and in other state capitals see water as a priority this year. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – February 13, 2023

The fiscal scare that arose in the early days of the pandemic has ebbed.

Instead of budgetary catastrophe, state balance sheets show evidence of a “strong fiscal position,” says Kathryn White of the National Association of State Budget Officers. Rather than being depleted, reserves are overflowing.

Forty-nine states reported higher than expected revenue last year, according to NASBO data. General fund revenue in 2022 grew more than 14 percent overall. Wisconsin’s governor said the state will celebrate its 175th birthday in its best financial position ever. So it is with bulging pockets that state lawmakers return to their capitals for new legislative sessions.

They also return, in many cases, with a sense of urgency about water.

The droughts, floods, water supply disruptions, and contamination worries of recent years have rattled prior complacency.

“The time has come when action can no longer be delayed,” Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said on January 11 in his annual address.

Gordon was referring to actions that would secure water for his state from the shrinking Colorado River. But his tone was no different than Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin speaking about PFAS contamination of drinking water. Or Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas explaining the need to conserve water from the shrinking Ogallala aquifer that nourishes the state’s agriculture industry. Or Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York proposing to cut heat-trapping carbon emissions.

News headlines in Nevada and Nebraska have proclaimed that this will be the “year of water” in their respective legislatures. They are not alone.

“We’re seeing around the country the themes of water infrastructure, water equity, water resiliency, and emerging contaminants,” said Ben Grumbles, the executive director of the Environmental Council of the States, the organization that represents state environmental agencies.

One reason state budgets are strong is the effect of federal assistance. Hundreds of billions in pandemic relief funds still cast an afterglow. And billions more are yet to come from federal climate and infrastructure packages.

Grumbles says that state lawmakers are bolstering agency staffing and evaluating permitting processes in order to distribute the once-in-a-generation influx of federal funds for lead pipe replacement, PFAS treatment, and other water infrastructure projects.

Favorable political alignments could help many states convert water worries into action.

Thirty-nine states — 22 Republican and 17 Democratic — have a political “trifecta” with one party holding the governor’s seat and controlling both legislative chambers. Passing new laws is easier with this arrangement. Because of Michigan’s trifecta, lawmakers see an opportunity to revive legislation that would enshrine a human right to water.

In dry, fast-growing Arizona, groundwater sustainability is front of mind. State Rep. Selina Bliss filed a bill that would partially close a legal loophole that could hasten the depletion of aquifers. This follows Gov. Katie Hobbs declaration in January that drought and overuse of the Colorado River were “the challenge of our time.”

In Wyoming, the governor requested $500,000 so that the State Engineer’s Office can develop hydrologic models that will assist the state in negotiations over water from the Colorado River.

In Nebraska, farming and water go hand in hand. Gov. Jim Pillen wants to proceed with an ambitious project that has been met with skepticism: building a $567 million canal to divert water from the South Platte River in Colorado. “My budget recommendation includes fully funding the canal,” Pillen said in his State of the State speech.

Nebraska lawmakers are also looking to fund a second water source for Lincoln, the state capital, the Journal Star reports, as well as responding to nitrate and pesticide contamination of groundwater that is associated with childhood cancers and other health problems.

In Texas, where water funding has traditionally been a point of bipartisan agreement, lawmakers arrive with an enviable $33 billion budget surplus. After a year of boil-water advisories, burst pipes, and rainless days, water infrastructure is a leading concern, says Sarah Schlessinger, CEO of the Texas Water Foundation, a nonpartisan educational organization.

To bring new lawmakers up to speed, the Texas Water Foundation organized the bipartisan House Water Caucus, whose goal is not to propose legislation but rather to educate members of the Texas House of Representatives on basic water issues — Water 101, as Schlessinger calls it. What is a watershed? What is the state revolving fund? What federal infrastructure funds are available? What is the state regulatory system?

After the recent retirement of long-serving representatives, “we were going to have a huge gap in general water knowledge,” Schlessinger said. “And we also knew that, at the same time, we were going to have these huge, pressing, complex issues around water infrastructure funding.”

More than 70 lawmakers have joined the caucus.

Not every state has an overflowing treasury. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Texas is California, which faces a budget deficit of at least $18 billion. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office attributes the shortfall to rising interest rates and a turbulent year for the high-flying tech industry that reduced income tax revenue.

Affordability advocates had hoped a state-run program to assist low-income residents with their water bills would have been operating by now. But last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill to establish such a program. Too expensive, he said, without a dedicated funding source.

Due to the budget shortfall this year, reviving the water-bill assistance legislation faces “an uphill battle,” says Abraham Mendoza, a senior policy advocate for the Community Water Center. Instead, his group is focusing on smaller steps, such as a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Dodd to expand water shutoff protections to households served by very small utilities.

Even if these bills do not pass this year, the underlying concerns for water supply and reliability will remain, not just in California but nationwide.

“I see that for the foreseeable future,” Grumbles said.