Trump’s new interest in water resources — why now?

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After spending almost four years attacking programs to protect water resources, President Trump has just issued an executive order creating a new interagency water policy committee, or “water subcabinet,” to “improve our country’s water resource management.” 

Is this a genuine effort to modernize water infrastructure to “meet the needs of current and future generations,” or simply dressing up the administration’s long neglect of water resources just in time for the election; in other words, putting lipstick on a pig?  

Skeptics will undoubtedly point out that, while a primary objective of the order is “reducing duplication across the federal government,” the new water subcabinet effectively duplicates the existing Water Resources Council. 

Why create a new subcabinet when you already have a council made of many of the same heads of departments and agencies? The existing council has statutory powers, including the authority to establish standards for federal water and related land resources projects. The council is also charged with a biennial assessment of the “adequacy of supplies of water necessary to meet…the national interest.” Layering on a new organization has the effect of smothering the statutory framework and shifting attention to a new set of policies and objectives.

One such new policy is cutting back on existing coordination among federal agencies. Section 4 of the order laments the “hundreds of Federal water-related task forces, working groups, and other formal cross-agency initiatives” working to manage water resources and calls for a report within 90 days “on coordinating and consolidating” these efforts. Not every federal interagency coordination workgroup is doing essential work. But, the direction to evaluate these efforts and recommend restructuring in just 90 days that fall after a presidential election suggests a demolition that will take the good with the bad, setting back cooperative work by years.

There is a whiff of politically motivated urgency in the order’s demand that agencies develop, within 120 days, recommendations to improve drinking water and flood control. These are worthy goals, but the Trump administration has spent the last four years working against them. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed changes to regulations for lead in drinking water that more than double the time for replacement of lead pipes. Yet President Trump revoked requirements developed during the Obama administration to steer new federal projects away from flood risk areas.  

The president also directs agencies to make recommendations, again within 120 days, for improving water quality, including implementing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, reducing nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River watershed and continuing restoration of the Florida Everglades. Speeding restoration of these waters, and many others around the country, would be good news. But again, big improvements would be a major turnaround from past actions. 

For example, for fiscal year 2018 the Trump administration proposed to zero out all funding for the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and proposed a cut of 90 percent for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. In its budget for fiscal year 2021, however, the administration seems to have awakened to the ecological significance of the Great Lakes, or recognized their importance in swing states, because it has proposed $320 million

Politics also played a role in funding for the Florida Everglades. Again, the Trump administration initially proposed two-thirds less than requested by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis but, after lobbying by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the president increased proposed funding to $200 million. And, while reducing pollution in the Mississippi River is a good thing, it is offset by the recent resurrection of a major Army Corps of Engineers project that the Bush administration vetoed in 2008 in order to protect 200,0000 acres of wetlands along the river. 

Aside from the order appearing just weeks prior to the election, there are other reasons to wonder whether any of the resulting recommendations will be acted on if the president is reelected. The short schedule for developing recommendations makes any meaningful public engagement difficult and reduces the chance of public support. And, the delivery date for recommendations late this year or in January of next year, means that recommendations are disconnected from the budget process, arriving after agency budgets are largely fixed.  

Finally, in considering whether the Trump administration might have turned a new leaf, it is important to remember the larger context. This is the same administration that has weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, cut Clean Water Act enforcement prosecutions by 70 percent and proposed to cut funding for clean water and drinking water infrastructure projects by 28 percent in fiscal year 2021.  

Although much of the new order should be viewed with skepticism, I hope we can all agree with the first line: “Abundant, safe, and reliable supplies of water are critical to quality of life for all Americans…”. 

Jeff Peterson is a retired senior policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency and the author of “A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas.”

Tags clean water Clean Water Act Donald Trump executive orders Marco Rubio Rick Scott Ron DeSantis Trump administration trump executive orders water infrastructure Water resources Water Resources Council
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