Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Funding Water Projects Through WaterSMART

WaterSMART is a Bureau of Reclamation initiative aimed at providing federal cost-share funding to local, state, and tribal entities as they plan and execute projects to save water and energy. The WaterSMART umbrella covers a wide variety of funding programs, including the eponymous WaterSMART Water and Energy Efficiency Grants, Small- Scale Water Efficiency Grants, Title XVI Recycling and Reuse Program, Basin Studies, and others.

In this interview, Avra Morgan, program coordinator for the Cooperative Watershed Management Program and the water marketing portion of the WaterSMART Grants Program, Amanda Erath, program coordinator for Title XVI and for Basin Studies activity, and Josh German, program coordinator for the WaterSMART Grants portion of WaterSMART, speak with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about the funding available through WaterSMART and the initiative’s accomplishments so far.

Joshua Dill: Would you give us an overview of WaterSMART and its history?

Avra Morgan: WaterSMART was established in 2010 as a secretarial initiative with the aim of working collaboratively with our stakeholders to make improvements to water management in order to conserve water, cope with drought conditions and other causes of water shortages, and avoid water conflicts. Many of WaterSMART’s subprograms, including the WaterSMART Grants Program, the Water Conservation Field Services Program, the Title XVI Water Recycling and Reuse Program, and the Drought Response Program, have roots in earlier initiatives. Since 2010, new programs and activities have been added to those, including the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, the Small- Scale Water Efficiency Grants program, which is focused on smaller- dollar water conservation projects, and the water marketing part of the WaterSMART Grants Program. Title XVI has also been updated by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act.

Joshua Dill: Would you briefly explain what kind of projects are eligible?

Avra Morgan: WaterSMART is an umbrella initiative that has included seven or eight programs over the course of its existence. They have all been focused on ways to improve water management, whether that’s through water conservation and efficiency, water reuse, planning, watershed restoration projects, or even science-oriented projects—we have a category that’s referred to as Applied Science Grants. It is a combination of on-the-ground projects and planning projects that help improve water management across the West.

I would characterize the program and the projects it funds as highly collaborative. We work together with stakeholders to leverage federal and nonfederal funding. There’s always a cost-share requirement for these programs. We encourage people to identify partners to support their projects and we require them to explain the planning efforts that have been undertaken so as to prioritize projects, that are based on collaboration among local stakeholders.

Joshua Dill: What niche was WaterSMART designed to fill? Was it difficult for smaller-scale efficiency programs to get funding?

Josh German: WaterSMART Grants were initially focused on partnering with and providing cost-share funding to stakeholders to provide incentives for conservation and efficiency projects that might not otherwise be undertaken.

The WaterSMART Grants Program includes Water and Energy Efficiency Grants, Small-Scale Water Efficiency Grants, and Water Marketing Strategy Grants. The Water and Energy Efficiency Grants are our largest funding category other than Title XVI, both in terms of dollar amount and the number of applications that we get. They fund water conservation and efficiency projects, including canal lining and piping, metering, automation, turf replacement, and improvements to supervisory control and data acquisition systems. That category of funding has gotten popular and competitive.

We realized that we wanted to provide an opportunity for smaller entities and districts to apply for funding for water conservation and management projects as well, so in 2016 we introduced Small-Scale Water Efficiency Grants, which are limited to a total cost-share amount of $75,000. The Water and Energy Efficiency Grants, by contrast, cover much higher amounts— applicants can request up to $1.5 million for a larger project. The response has been overwhelming. We’ve received a lot of proposals for Small-Scale Water Efficiency Grants projects. We also tried to make the application process easier by streamlining some aspects of it. Because these are smaller-dollar projects, we’re able to make the application process a little simpler.

Amanda Erath: The Title XVI Water Recycling and Reuse Program has existed since 1992. For many years, only projects specifically authorized by Congress were eligible for construction funding under the program. In 2016, the WIIN Act was passed. That act included amendments to Title XVI that opened the program up. Now, instead of needing a congressional authorization for construction funding, project sponsors just have to meet some threshold requirements, mainly by submitting a Title XVI feasibility study to Reclamation. That was a big development for the program. We’ve seen funding levels for the program increase pretty dramatically. Last year, we had $54 million in fiscal year 2018 appropriations for Title XVI. This year, we have a little over $58 million. Those are pretty substantial increases from previous years, when the program had $20–30 million available.

Joshua Dill: What is the breakdown of the cost share?

Avra Morgan: With only a couple of exceptions, all WaterSMART projects that are funded through competitive funding opportunities require a 50 percent nonfederal cost share. That can include in-kind contributions, like staff time, or contributions from third parties.

Amanda Erath: Title XVI requires a 75 percent nonfederal cost share. Reclamation provides up to 25 percent. Title XVI projects are large and tend to take a long time to complete, so unlike all our other funding opportunity announcements, in which an entity applies once and, if successful, receives its 50 percent cost share and completes its project in 2–3 years, Title XVI entities apply year after year until the federal funding that they are awarded reaches 25 percent of the total project cost or $20 million, whichever is less. These entities have to meet that 75 percent nonfederal cost share each year they apply, and the project as a whole also has to be 75 percent funded by nonfederal money.

Avra Morgan: I’d also like to mention our collaboration with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). We are trying to incentivize our stakeholders to leverage funding from both agencies to try to maximize water conservation benefits. NRCS’s programs are focused on on-farm water conservation, while Reclamation’s are focused on water delivery systems. Our applicants can get extra points in their applications for our grants if the proposed project will also help improve water management on farm through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). NRCS likewise gives extra prioritization to WaterSMART awardees for funding through EQIP.

Joshua Dill: How many grants do you award per year?

Avra Morgan: In 2018, we selected 54 Water and Energy Efficiency Grants, 59 Small-Scale projects, and 7 water marketing projects, for a total of 120 WaterSMART Grants projects. We selected a total of 200 projects for award under all the activities included within WaterSMART.

Joshua Dill: What is the application time frame?

Avra Morgan: We have a release cycle for the application process, which depends to some degree on when we get a budget and on ongoing developments within the programs. Typically, we try to post our funding opportunities in the first and second quarters of the fiscal year. The response to those funding opportunities is at least 60 days later, and we do our best to award the funding before the end of the fiscal year.

Joshua Dill: What’s the overall amount of funding you provide through WaterSMART in a given year?

Josh German: The average for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019 was around $103 million.

Joshua Dill: Would you give an overview of the results that WaterSMART has achieved?

Josh German: The primary focus of WaterSMART’s Water and Energy Efficiency Grants over the years has been on quantifiable water savings. Those savings constitute one of the primary benefits of the program. Since the inception of the priority goal in 2010, the Water and Energy Efficiency Grants and a handful of other programs have saved hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water.

Amanda Erath: Our Basin Study Program has also achieved significant results. Basin studies are intended to foster collaboration in basins with conflicts or water supply and demand imbalances. As part of a basin study, Reclamation works to help bring all the parties in a basin together to identify potential solutions. We’ve seen a lot of success in building collaboration that outlasts the basin study itself. The Colorado River is a great example of that. Reclamation funded the Colorado River basin study back in 2009. The collaboration that was fostered by that effort is ongoing today through the Ten Tribes Partnership and the Drought Contingency Plan. Another example that comes to mind is the Republican River basin study. When the study began, the two states involved, Nebraska and Kansas, were engaged in active litigation against each other. The basin study proved to be a great forum for the states to come together and work collaboratively on the challenges they faced without focusing exclusively on the litigation, partly because the study was focused on the future rather than on the present. The two states weren’t talking when the basin study started, but by the end, they were working together.

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your vision for WaterSMART.

Avra Morgan: We work continually to improve the programs that we have, and we try to identify needs that we’re not addressing. One of our goals for next year is to try to identify parts of the West that have not received as many grants under the WaterSMART initiative and to try to do some outreach and workshops in those areas. We also try to adjust our programs to fit needs that haven’t been met. The Small-Scale Water Efficiency Grants and the water marketing grants are good examples of that. One of our new programs is the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, to which entities can apply to form a watershed group. The response to phase I of the program has been good. We recently started funding phase II, which funds on-the-ground watershed management projects. The response to that funding offer hasn’t been as big. We would like to explore why and see if we can get the word out.

Joshua Dill: What should our readers do if they are interested in applying for a WaterSMART grant?

Avra Morgan: We encourage people to reach out to us if they’re interested in the program and have questions about how to apply, or if they want to understand why they weren’t selected. We also do a lot of debriefings about why particular applications were not successful. We’re happy to talk to people who are interested in programs and want to apply. I would also recommend that people visit our website, www.usbr.gov/WaterSMART. IL

Avra Morgan is the program coordinator for the Cooperative Watershed Management Program and the water marketing portion of the WaterSMART Grants program. She can be reached at (303) 445-2906 or at aomorgan@usbr.gov. Amanda Erath is the program coordinator for the Title XVI program and for basin studies. She can be contacted at (303) 445-2766 or aerath@usbr.gov. Josh German is the program coordinator for the WaterSMART Grants portion of the WaterSMART program. He can be contacted at (303) 445-2839 or jgerman@usbr.gov.