24 July 2012

Water Resources Research Amendments Act of 2012

There is presently a bill under consideration in the US Senate known as "S. 2104: Water Resources Research Amendments Act of 2012." It might be better titled the "Water Resources Research Reduction Act of 2012" given the provisions of the bill. The bill designated S. 2104 was introduced on 14 February 2012, and was last month (21 June 2012) reported favorably, without amendments, by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for debate on the Senate floor. The bill is sponsored by Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), James Inhofe (R-OK), John Boozman (R-AR), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Tom Udall (D-NM, also a co-sponsor of the previous version). The latter three Senators joined sponsorship of the bill after its introduction.

This is actually a second round for the legislation itself, having been introduced as identical bills in both houses of Congress in 2010 (S. 3363 and H.R. 5487) but not making it to debate on the floor of either before adjournment of the 111th Congress. The previous version of the Senate bill (S. 3363, 111th) was reported favorably by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works within just one week of its introduction and assignment, while its companion (H.R. 5487, 111th) never made it out of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The present Senate bill (S. 2104, 112th) spent just over four months in Committee before its favorable report to the Senate floor. In the case of both the current (S. 2104, 112th) and previous (S. 3363, 111th) versions of the bill, Senator Cardin of Maryland was the principal sponsor, and Senator Udall of Arizona joined co-sponsorship after the bill was reported favorably by Committee.

Map of WRRIs from the National Institutes for Water Resources.
The original Water Resources Research Act (WRRA) of 1984 established a network of academic research and public extension institutes in every state of the US. (A pdf version of the 1984 WRRA is also available.) These research institutes, also variously called a state's "Center for Water Resources" or "Water Resources Research Center," are closely aligned and affiliated with the agricultural extension program that was developed at the nation's land-grant colleges and universities by the Morrill Act of 1862. Whereas the agricultural extension programs at the land grant universities are administered by the US Department of Agriculture, with cabinet-level visibility in the Executive Branch of the government, the country has no "Department of Water" yet. Instead, our handling of water is spread out among some 40 or more federal departments and agencies, not to mention the individual rights of nearly 60 states and territories with their own government departments and agencies. The federal system seemingly ensures that efforts to address water issues at a national scale remain uncoordinated at best, and more often incoherent or just plain absent. What we have in the US is far from being considered a "policy" on water; individuals and organizations across the country have put forth "visions," "strategies," and other concepts for management of water issues at the federal level. However, the political will to organization and leadership remains elusive. I believe that it can be done, as complex as the issue may be, but I also see that we just don't yet have the progressive leadership in the US Congress and various departments of the Executive Branch to get it there.

The network of Water Resources Research Institutes (WRRIs) is also affiliated closely with the US Geological Survey (USGS), which maintains state and regional offices for water-related studies throughout the country. An agency of the US Department of the Interior, the USGS is one of the leading science-oriented organizations working constantly to improve our understanding of water availability, quality and use (as well as other issues). While the WRRIs generally work in their own states to improve such understanding, and often coordinate across state boundaries to improve their studies, the USGS works on water on a national basis and coordinates across international boundaries with neighboring countries (Canada and Mexico) to perform complete studies of water resource issues. Studies performed by the USGS are generally oriented on whole watersheds and aquifers, regardless of the political boundaries drawn across those areas. The USGS maintains the National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP), coordinating the historical and real-time data from thousands of federal and state-owned stream gauges to give us a better understanding of the country's surface water and groundwater resources.

The work of the WRRI in each state is funded in two ways. Institutional research grants are determined by the budget of the host college or university, which is in turn tied to the state budget and can thus fluctuate over short times, typically on 1- to 2-year cycles. Priorities for the direction of institutional research funds are determined by the state's academic advisory committee, which administers the public university budget overall. Federal research grants are determined in amount on a uniform state basis by Congressional appropriation and (until the present bill under consideration in the Senate) are administered on a 5-year cycle. The direction of these federal grant funds is decided by a joint committee of the USGS and the National Institutes for Water Resources. As legislated, each dollar of federal funding to a state's WRRI must be matched with at least one dollar of state funding to the WRRI. Federal grant funds are also made available for multi-state cooperation and collaboration on trans-boundary work.

The trouble is, the basic summary of the new legislation under consideration in the Senate leaves out the issue of funding. That summary is often written by the bill's sponsor, in this case Sens. Cardin, Boxer and Inhofe. The site linked above (GovTrack.us) indicates that the summary of the present bill was provided by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and lists several generalizations of the bill's text, but again leaves out the issue of funding. Unfortunately, that summary is often the only information that the mainstream media uses to report to public consumers on the issues. We can't let it slide that, in fact, funding to the WRRI network will be cut dramatically by S. 2104. Specifically, the WRRIs have been funded from 2007 through the end of FY2011 at a level of just $12M annually for grants to individual states and by an additional $6M annually for grants to multi-state activities. That is a meager total of just $18M annually for the whole country, not for each WRRI in the network. In addition, those appropriations ended on 30 September 2011; it is unclear to me whether the WRRI network has technically operated unfunded since that date, or if funding has remained available under continuing resolution since then. The present bill S. 2104 proposes to diminish that funding pool through FY2017, from $12M to $7.5M annually for individual state grants, and from $6M to just $1.5M annually for multi-state activities.

At a time when the importance of water to so many sectors and aspects of society and the economy is becoming increasingly visible, Congressional recognition of that fact continues to wane. Can we really afford these cuts to an already meager budget for research and outreach? Can we really afford the loss of knowledge and understanding in our nation's water resources that such budget cuts will engender over the next several years?

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