S. 677

Water Supply Permitting Coordination Act

Statement of Scott Cameron
Acting Assistant Secretary – Water and Science U.S. Department of the Interior
before the
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Subcommittee on Water and Power
S. 677, the Water Supply Permitting and Coordination Act 
June 14, 2017

Chairman Flake and members of the Subcommittee, I am Scott Cameron, Acting Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior.  I am pleased to provide the views of the Department of the Interior (Department) on S. 677, the Water Supply Permitting and Coordination Act.

Before I discuss our views on S. 677, I wanted to emphasize the importance of infrastructure investments in strengthening our economy and ensuring our Nation’s competitiveness.  The construction of infrastructure has the potential to create jobs and reduce the cost of goods and services for American families and consumers.  The Department supports efforts to streamline and expedite, in a manner consistent with law, environmental reviews, and approvals for all infrastructure projects, including new surface water storage projects.  Surface water storage projects are an important component of our Nation’s infrastructure that create multiple benefits, including reliable water supplies, flood control, hydropower, and water quality improvements.

The Department supports the goals of S. 677, but we would like to point out that for major infrastructure projects, projects likely to exceed $200 million in total investment, many of the concerns that the bill is intended to address are being addressed through implementation of Title 41 of the FAST Act.  Title XLI creates a more efficient permitting process and offers enhanced agency coordination and transparency and predictability through tracking of project milestones on a public website.  If S.677 should move forward, we recommend some amendments which we believe will aid in the coordinated implementation of the bill.

S. 677 directs the Secretary of the Interior to coordinate federal and state permitting processes related to the construction of new surface storage projects on lands managed by Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Section 3(a) of the bill would establish the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) as the “lead agency for purposes of coordinating all reviews, analyses, opinions, statements, permits, licenses, or other approvals or decisions required under Federal law to construct qualifying projects.”  Section 4 establishes deadlines and timelines for notifying and consulting with cooperating agencies, completing environmental reviews, and determining project schedules.  The bill allows for contributed funds from non-federal entities, an important tool in order to allow communities to leverage federal funds to build drought resiliency.

S. 677 improves on previous legislation by appropriately limiting the scope of “qualifying projects” to new surface storage projects located in the 17 Western states where Reclamation has typically had jurisdiction under Reclamation law.  We appreciate the Committee and sponsors of S. 677 working with Reclamation to revise the bill to appropriately narrow the scope of Reclamation’s authority.

While S. 677 would authorize Reclamation to coordinate the review of new surface storage projects, the bill does not grant Reclamation any authority to ensure cooperating agencies meet their proposed timeframes in Section 5 or the project schedules under Section 4.  We also note that there may be fewer efficiencies where Reclamation is the coordinating entity for projects on lands managed by other bureaus or USDA, where Reclamation has no action or decision authority.  We look forward to working with the Committee to clarify language to ensure S. 677 achieves the sponsor’s goal of streamlining the approval of surface water storage projects.

Also, Section 4(b)(4) requires Reclamation to coordinate a “unified environmental review document.”  We would interpret this provision as applicable to the National Environmental Policy Act process, as opposed to other permitting obligations under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act or other statutes.  The bill also does not include additional federal funding for these activities, which could result, at least in the case of other bureaus and USDA lands, in Reclamation diverting resources from its other programs for this activity.  We would like to work with the Committee to ensure this bill reduces the time necessary to establish the merits of projects and does not establish unrealistic time frames for approval, inadvertently resulting in a decrease in favorable recommendations.

The President’s 2018 budget request includes an infrastructure initiative aiming to explore long-term reforms on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered, and maintained.  In particular, the initiative acknowledges the current environmental review and permitting process lacks cohesiveness, often making infrastructure projects more costly, unpredictable, and time-consuming, all while adding little environmental protection.  The Administration is looking into pilot programs to enhance the environmental review and permitting process, designate a single federal entity to coordinate between other federal agencies, and allow state and local entities to be responsible for permitting where appropriate.  This initiative dovetails into the goals set forth in S. 677.

The President’s infrastructure initiative applies to the permitting of new surface water storage projects.  Reclamation recognizes that streamlining permitting and associated environmental reviews is necessary.  However, we would be remiss not to note the importance of other factors essential to the success of new surface storage projects.  Other factors include a strong base of project repayment, market conditions and economics, the presence of local consensus on the project from the community around the proposed site, and an adequate potential water market associated with the given facilities.  In other cases, environmental, safety, or geologic challenges can come to light during a project’s development, and create challenges for construction, completion, or operation.  We continue to look at ways to streamline and expedite the approval of infrastructure projects, and in doing so, aim to quickly identify new and viable surface storage projects.

Additionally, we would like to work with the Committee on Sections 2(4), 3(b)(2) and 4(b)(4)(A) and (B), the definition of “cooperating agency,” establishment of cooperating agencies, and timelines for cooperating agency approvals to ensure this definition, involvement, and timelines are consistent with established regulations (40 C.F.R. §1500-1508) and judicial interpretations.  For example, it is inconsistent with the definition under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its implementing regulations which identify federal, Tribal, State, and local governmental entities as potential cooperating agencies and further allows those governmental entities with subject matter expertise to be designated cooperating agencies.  Further, under current NEPA regulations, an agency with jurisdiction or special expertise can decline to be a cooperating agency, yet still issue a permit or other approval.  Finally, we understand the intent of Section 6(c) is to prohibit the Secretary of the Interior from accepting or expending funds contributed by a non-federal entity to conduct additional reviews of permits reviewed by the pertinent Reclamation Regional Director.  We look forward to working with you to ensure that intent is clear in S. 677.

In conclusion, we welcome the opportunity S. 677 provides the Department to work with this Committee to streamline and expedite the approval of new infrastructure projects.  While the underlying economic issues that prevent some projects from being built remain, we look forward to working with you on meeting Reclamation’s challenge of rehabilitating existing infrastructure where such decisions are warranted water and power infrastructure.  Reclamation will continue to consider surface storage as one of many options to meet water demands in the West.

This concludes my written statement.  I would be pleased to answer questions at the appropriate time.  

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