“Cut and Dry”

Federal water budgets have never been as robust as water boosters would like, even during the brief and heady days of 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulation, but things are about to get leaner and meaner.

Looming sequestration cuts, fiscal cliffs, and agency “food” fights over scarce federal dollars add up to a bleak, future–at least if the same old tactics and solutions are sought in the same old places among the same old players.

It doesn’t help that “water” is AWOL from most Congressional and Administration infrastructure spending strategies. The President’s February 12 State of the Union address to Congress and the nation only spoke to the visible side of infrastructure: the roads and bridges, trains and ports of sorts. You could say water is at the back of the bus but it would be more accurate to say it’s under the bus or left behind at the station. With the federal funding well drying up, there’s a need to dig in and protect what works and, with even greater urgency, tap into promising new areas with dynamic new players.

On budget cuts:

“Sequestration” is Greek to most but it’s actually Latin and it means a setting aside for safekeeping–kind of like a strategic secluded retreat. In today’s national drama, it’s less of a retreat than a final resting home (like a cemetery) with the permanent loss of appropriated funds ($85 billion over the next 7 months). Across-the-board, automatic spending cuts, designed to punish all except for some big social safety net programs, are poised to start happening on March 1.

EPA, just one of many federal agencies with important water missions, plans to meet the cuts through various tools, including temporary furloughs (i.e. unpaid vacations). According to Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe in a February 7 memo: “We are closely examining contracts, grants, and other forms of expenditures across the Agency to determine where we can reduce costs. In many cases, this could mean making cuts to vital programs or curtailing spending on contracts. We will also take steps, wherever possible, to reduce operational or administrative costs in areas such as travel, training, facilities, and supplies….” Other water agencies are also cutting back on upcoming travel and conference sponsorships. It’s all understandable, given the hard choices, although I’ve seen great results when federal regulators get out and about and have face-to-face meetings with stakeholders and experts.

This painful exercise of cutbacks and furloughs isn’t new to state legislatures and agencies across the country. State budget deficits have forced gut-wrenching decisions over the years, with environmental agencies often taking it on the chin, as other state public safety, education, and health care agencies see less of the knife. Environmental commissioners and directors have executed, and learned to live with, reductions in force (layoffs and early retirements without any backfilling), furloughs, increased outsourcing of services, asset sales, and other means to do more or less with less.

As the head of Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality from 2009-2010, when the Governor took bold steps to reduce a statewide budget deficit and the Legislature zeroed out our General Fund appropriations entirely, I have this observation: The doom and gloom wasn’t as bad as some had feared and actually produced some silver linings to the dark clouds. That’s no comfort to the individuals who lost their jobs or saw their salaries squeezed to the point of no return. While the agency workforce endured some RIFs and rolling furloughs (or “furcations” as we called them), we also improved some services through streamlining and innovative partnerships. The talented professionals made the most of it, selling and donating the lemonade made from the lemon. ADEQ even convinced a skeptical Legislature to allow the agency for the first time to impose permit fees on Clean Water Act dischargers and increase other environmental permit fees to help sustain operations for the long haul.

On smart savings:

The challenge isn’t just to prevent or reduce dumb cuts to the federal water budget; the better, long term solution is to make water efficiency and program coordination the philosophy of the nation. There is an amazing, almost embarrassing amount of low-hanging fruit here. If all of us work to instill a “save more, waste less” water ethic across the country, from agencies and businesses to our own households, we’ll cut water waste and gain more money, energy, and water security without the sacrifice envisioned in today’s unsettling status quo.

I can’t think of a better organization to lead the effort than the Alliance for Water Efficiency, “AWE”. Formed in 2006, this nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization has made amazing progress educating, advocating, and collaborating for water efficiency and conservation around the country, partnering with agencies, businesses, foundations, NGOs, and trade associations. They’ve broadened their base to include members from all aspects of water and energy efficiency to provide the necessary technical, legal, and policy foundation for progress.

Mary Ann Dickinson, their founder and CEO, is a world-renown pioneer in water efficiency and public-private sector partnerships who never stops thinking about the drops and watts and how her AWE-some team can score points for the blue planet. The U.S. Water Alliance is also proud to have her serve on its Board of Directors and spearhead potential “One Water” partnerships with us.

Some of my favorite AWE products and achievements:

*their long-standing, multi-faceted support for EPA’s WaterSense program, including the March 18-24 “Fix a Leak Week”

*their new website, Home Water Works, devoted to helping consumers save with a customized “water use calculator”

* their many technical documents, webinars, and summits on cutting-edge issues, from “The Drainline Transport of Solid Waste in Buildings”  to “Declining Water Sales and Revenues” (addressing the “conservation conundrum”)

* their report, “Assessing the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Industrial Water Use Efficiency within the Great Lakes Region,” with support from the Great Lakes Protection Fund

*their gutsy national grading of state efforts, “The Water Efficiency and Conservation State Scorecard: An Assessment of Laws and Policies“. The report, done with assistance from the Environmental Law Institute, and financial support from the Turner Foundation, delves into plumbing fixture standards, water conservation requirements related to water rights, water loss control rules, conservation planning and implemenation, volumetric billing for water, and funding sources for efficency and conservation. In testifying on the report before the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power, July 25, 2012, Ms. Dickinson said: “We strongly recommend that national incentives be enacted for water efficiency programs, and further that a national policy be instituted to allow energy-efficiency funding to be used for cold water conservation programs as well as hot water conservation programs because of the clear embedded energy benefits that this investment would provide.”

“Every drop counts” (to borrow EPA WaterSense’s slogan) and so does every dollar. Water efficient technologies and practices save money and make do with less, without sacrificing performance. That will be even more important as “dry” becomes the norm for many, due to climate change, budget cuts, and not-so-smart growth. Let the motto be “Save, Baby, Save”. Appropriators and thought leaders must have the vision and courage to re-tool and re-think America’s relationship to water. That’s the best way to reduce the risk of a dry future when the current reality is all about cutting and draining.

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