Interior interested in new congressional authority for water projects — deputy

By Debra Kahn, Annie Snider | 06/04/2015 07:36 AM EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — With the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee kicking off work on West-wide drought legislation, the Interior Department is eyeing new authorities it could win through the process, including the ability to enter into novel types of agreements to build water infrastructure projects, the agency’s top water official said yesterday.

Speaking at a conference on water technologies put on by General Electric Co. in San Francisco yesterday, Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor said he was encouraged by discussions led by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to address drought conditions across the West.

Interest in the issue is high among Western lawmakers, whose states are not only gripped by long-running dry conditions but also face growing demand for water from booming populations (E&E Daily, June 3).


Connor, who testified at an ENR Committee hearing Tuesday, said yesterday that he thought Interior could be funding a wider range of water projects than its historic focus on dams and reservoirs. He addressed an audience of water infrastructure experts who were gathered to discuss business opportunities in the water and energy sectors, chief among them water reuse and recycling projects.

"Typically the Bureau of Reclamation model was, ‘Let’s plan for a water storage and delivery facility and irrigate X number of acres in this fertile valley.’ Now we’re looking at much more different types of solutions," Connor, a former Reclamation chief, said in an interview, "like participating as a cost-share partner in a storage facility that’s not a federally owned facility, but that will address federal resources such as in-stream flows, or firming up the water supply reliability for federal projects, groundwater recharge facilities, [or] new environmental restoration projects."

"The federal government can participate in different ways based on federal and public interest, and I think there’s new authorities that might be appropriate with respect to that," he said.

Water storage and federal funding are key issues likely to be dealt with in any drought legislation with legs. Even conservative lawmakers tend to see a role for the federal government in water infrastructure.

But how involved the federal government should be beyond providing the funding is likely to be a point of tension as the discussion moves forward.

Connor pointed out yesterday, though that even if legislation were passed tomorrow, any new authorities would take time to kick in.

"I think there are new authorities that can be looked at, but I don’t think that’s [of] a critical nature particularly," he said. "So it’s important, but it’s not absolutely essential, and the reality is any new authorities will take a few years to get up and going, and we’re in the midst of trying to deal with these issues year to year right now."

Connor said he was "optimistic" after Tuesday’s hearing and the tone of the discussion. Murkowski made clear that she wants to reach beyond just California to pass a broader drought bill. While brainstorming has just begun, potential topics under discussion include promoting new water storage and supply projects and tweaking operations of existing Western water delivery infrastructure.

"I’m not sure exactly how that will manifest itself in legislative provisions, but the fact [is] that the dialogue was very constructive, and I do think there are some good ideas that have been talked about," he said. "We’re very happy to look at West-wide legislation and work with the Congress closely and see if there’s some new authorities that are appropriate."

Connor said he expected Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to introduce a successor to last year’s California-only drought bill within the next month or so. He said Interior has had ongoing discussions with Feinstein’s staff but fewer discussions with House members who have also been working on legislation to send more water from Northern California’s rivers to farms and cities in Southern California (E&E Daily, May 21).

But he said congressional action on the drought wasn’t essential.

"I think we have a lot of good tools and authorities already," he said. "I think it’s important for Congress to provide the resources as they’ve done the last couple of years — it’s been a good partnership from that standpoint."