“What the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation do, and do well, is infrastructure,” said a civilian representative of the Army Corps of Engineers during his presentation before a joint meeting of Corps and Reclamation leadership in spring 2008. “However, what we do poorly is explain the importance of infrastructure,” he continued. What that gentleman said struck a chord with me and everyone else in the room. He was right. However, communicating the importance of infrastructure is not solely the responsibility of these federal agencies. The western water community as a whole must do more to explain its critical needs. It is human nature to forget about floods once dams are in place, and to take the water storage and power production they provide for granted. It is also easy to find fault with such structures when all the good they provide is forgotten.
Attending the Hoover Dam 75th anniversary celebration was a wonderful reminder that our country once committed to constructing engineering marvels through strong leadership and tremendous cooperation between government and the private sector. Hoover and all Reclamation projects are enduring monuments to a rich history of what is possible when people work together. Yet many of these projects are over 50 years old and require upgrades and refurbishment to enter the modern era. For over 100 years in the 17 western states, Reclamation has helped answer the question: “Where will the water come from?” The bureau is still answering that question or, more accurately, trying to help answer that question. The reality is that Reclamation can only do what the law allows and what its funding provides. Restricted and underfunded, it is incumbent upon the western water community and Congress to help them help us.
As our water infrastructure ages and our water supplies become more strained, we need more funding and creative projects to increase our water storage and water reuse capacities. We need more water infrastructure, not less. There are existing programs, ideas, and laws that can help.
Congresswoman Grace Napolitano has long championed the water recycling Title XVI program as a way to stretch our existing urban water supplies and to reduce the pressure on agriculture. Congressman Adrian Smith introduced legislation to allow irrigation districts to install small hydroelectric generation turbines using their existing canals without the regulatory burden of seeking formal exemptions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. His legislation would allow districts to quickly create new streams of revenue using their own money and at their own pace. This revenue can help districts pay their Reclamation contract obligations and maintain their projects.
Additionally, the loan guarantee program authorized by the Twenty-First Century Water Works Act (Title II, P.L. 109-451) and signed into law in 2006 permits the Interior Department to issue loan guarantees to assist nonfederal borrowers to finance rural water projects, perform extraordinary maintenance and rehabilitation of Reclamation project facilities, and construct improvements to infrastructure directly related to Reclamation projects. Such loan guarantee programs exist within other federal agencies. However, Reclamation’s program has never been allowed to begin. Why? Simply put, the Office of Management and Budget disagrees with the program as passed by Congress and signed by the president into law.
Title XVI, the small hydroelectric generation legislation, and the loan guarantee program can provide infrastructure solutions on par with the benefits that Hoover Dam brought to the western landscape 75 years ago, but it will take a similar partnership between government and the private sector to make them happen. All will create jobs, build our economy, and add important and lasting water supplies to serve our country for years to come. Can such cooperation exist again? Are we still a nation of builders?
One need only stand on Hoover Dam and look up at the new bridge for those answers. It was built through the combined efforts of private companies in cooperation with the federal government to bypass the road running directly over the dam. Similar efforts will be necessary to sustain the western water supply for future generations and ensure that the work of previous generations of farmers and ranchers is not squandered. However, we cannot leave it to Reclamation alone to explain these needs. Infrastructure initiatives are not authorized without the unabashed support of their beneficiaries, Congress, and the Administration. To build that support, it is essential that, in our communications with Congress, our communities, and other groups, we do more to explain the importance of infrastructure.
Kris Polly is editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at Kris.Polly@waterstrategies.com.