By Joya Banerjee and Sarah Huckins

May 25, 2021

Across the Mountain and Southwest region, intersecting crises are driving powerful responses. The region is experiencing a “megadrought,” with several states experiencing their most intense period of drought since 2020. Looking towards the dry summer months, leaders are concerned about increased water restrictions and wildfires. Winter Storm Uri also devastated Texas, as subfreezing temperatures shut down the state’s electricity infrastructure—resulting in broken pipes and shortages of water, food, and heat. These severe weather events, made more intense and frequent by climate change, are creating pressure on top of a year of deep stress from COVID-19.

There is a tremendous need to respond to the moment in a way that prepares for future crises and invests in resilience. Leaders in the Mountain and Southwest region are seeing this appreciation resonating in a new way at the federal level. Water is featured in both the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act and American Rescue Plan Act, and water infrastructure investment is a key element of the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan. Those at the state level aren’t just remarking on the fact that water is being discussed at the highest levels of government—they also note how water is being discussed.
Through regional Listening Sessions, a survey of the Alliance network, and targeted interviews, the Alliance is hearing that state leaders are intensely worried about drought impacts. At the same time, leaders are feeling invigorated by conversations about the intersection between investing in water and addressing climate change. Leaders are also heartened by hearing broader interpretations of what has been traditionally considered infrastructure. In this unprecedented moment, the Alliance is seeing an opportunity to incorporate natural systems into the definition of infrastructure. It is at the state, local, and tribal level where great ideas are manifesting into projects. Across the Mountain and Southwest regions, One Water leaders are seeking to ensure recovery efforts lead to lasting change.

What We Heard in the Mountain & Southwest:

Recovery is possible, but state and local leaders are overwhelmed. There is excitement about increased federal discussion of funding water infrastructure, but there is also a sense of being inundated. Participants expressed a lack of guidance and a need for support navigating different sources of funding. While the funding proposals are promising, leaders on the ground need assistance in accessing resources once they are allocated. This mirrors sentiments expressed in the other regional Listening Sessions.
Recovery must be flexible. A key challenge that surfaced in the Mountain and Southwest Listening Session is that constraints in existing funding programs make it difficult to access resources. Many programs only fund construction, which is limiting to many communities who need support with planning, operation, and maintenance costs. As additional federal funding rolls out, state and local leaders are calling for investments that fund planning, design, and acquisition—not just shovel-ready water projects. These investments should also be more broadly directed at building capacity and developing resources for community members to engage in planning processes. For recovery to lead to durable solutions, funding should support a wide range of opportunities.
Recovery must be strategically communicated. Throughout the Listening Session, participants emphasized the need for transparency and clarity, as well as the need to emphasize water’s role as an essential service. Participants also highlighted that who is doing the communication is critical. It is imperative those developing engagement strategies are representative of the communities being engaged. The engagement process needs to include listening and understanding what a given community needs beyond water coming out of the faucet. There is also a need to be thinking about how to be communicating at a watershed scale and providing access to information in a consolidated way.
Recovery must emphasize co-benefits and water sharing. Historically, those in the Mountain and Southwest region operated with a zero-sum mentality concerning water. But Listening Session participants emphasized how this moment provides an opportunity to move away from a winners-and-losers approach towards a more holistic approach. This work will require agencies both within and across states to collaborate and see themselves as a part of a broader, interconnected community.
Throughout the Listening Session, the notion that investments in infrastructure should create the most benefit for people and the environment resonated deeply. As infrastructure continues to be a national priority at the federal level, One Water leaders at the state and regional level have an opportunity to push for a redefinition of watersheds as critical water infrastructure. A broad interpretation of infrastructure holds enormous benefits for both water and communities and can be a key aspect of recovering stronger. Listed below are examples of other beneficial programs and policies surfaced in the Session:
Climate Adaptation and Resilience 
  • In 2019, with the passage of Senate Bill 8, the Texas state legislature and Governor Greg Abbott tasked the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) with administering a state and regional flood planning processes. In 2020, the TWDB developed 15 regional flood planning groups and the first regional flood plans are due in 2023.
  • Austin, TX first adopted a Community Climate Plan in 2015 and is now updating the plan with the goal of addressing racial equity. The Austin Community Climate Plan 2020 is currently being revised based on community feedback. As a part of the Climate Plan Update, the city also launched a Climate Ambassadors Program to engage historically underrepresented groups.
  • In 2019, Colorado released a Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan. The update describes five new planning scenarios that include climate change considerations. For the first time, three of the five planning scenarios include assumptions related to a hotter and drier future climate. While the Technical Update does incorporate potential impacts from climate change, some leaders raised questions about whether the Water Plan effectively incorporates equity considerations.
Affordability and Access 
  • In Arizona, the City of Tucson is conducting community outreach around Tucson Water’s low-income assistance program. Tucson offers payment plans based on what a customer can pay. Before the pandemic, Tucson Water had $3 million in bill delinquency. During the pandemic that number increased to $9 million. With robust engagement, Tucson Water is almost back down to pre-pandemic levels ($3.5 million).
Infrastructure, Jobs, and Economic Recovery 
  • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) offers a Transitions Hiring Program and seeks to connect recent graduates with TCEQ entry-level jobs. The program specifically targets candidates who have a bachelor’s degree but who haven’t yet accrued significant work experience.
  • In Colorado, Groundwork Denver received a $178,000 job training grant from the Environmental Protection Agency through the EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Program. The funding will allow Groundwork Denver to launch a new Green Infrastructure Training Program, targeting young adults aged 18-24 in Sheridan, CO.
  • The New Mexico Acequia Association’s Los Sembradores Farming Training Project works to build a new generation of farmers. The training project teaches young farmers modern farming techniques as well as traditional irrigation techniques and ancestral farming methods. The project focuses on providing opportunities for rural and land-based New Mexicans who have connections to their acequia systems. Acequias are irrigation systems used since before the formation of the United States and also serve as local institutions of governance over water distribution.
Innovation and New Models of Partnership  
  • The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, is a major infrastructure project that will convey water supply to Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the City of Gallup, NM. As a part of this project, the Bureau of Reclamation partnered with the Navajo Technical University (NTU) and secured funding from the Native American Tribal Access Program (TAP) to fund a documentary about the project created by NTU students.
Water Quality 
  • In Colorado, Denver Water is undertaking a 15-year lead reduction program to remove an estimated 64,000 to 84,000 lead service lines. The program began in January 2020 and is a part of Denver Water’s five-year capital program. Denver Water is financing the five-year plan in part through the sale of bonds under a ruling from the IRS, selling $300 million in bonds in 2020 and $350 million in bonds in 2021.
  • The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) dedicated funds from its Water Quality Assistance Revolving Fund to address PFAS in groundwater surrounding Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. ADEQ is working closely with Tucson Water to ensure drinking water meets health advisory levels. ADEQ also worked with the Air National Guard to provide residents who have privately-owned wells that tested above health advisory levels with an alternative source of drinking water.
The Listening Session concluded with a reflection on how investments in water will not be successful if the resources and opportunities are not communicated effectively to eligible municipalities or entities, and if those municipalities and entities do not engage and communicate effectively with impacted residents and stakeholders. As in previous sessions, participants acknowledged the importance of equity. One participant emphasized that despite the sense of urgency to take advantage of funding, time must be taken to disperse those funds in an equitable way.

What’s Next:

The completion of the Mountain & Southwest Listening Session marks the halfway point in the Recovering Stronger State Innovations Project! With three regions to go, the Alliance is starting to hear insights that resonate beyond regional boundaries. As the Alliance looks to coming state legislative sessions this Fall, this initiative will aim to spread and share examples of One Water policies that will help drive a transformative recovery. To read the recaps of the previous Listening Sessions, follow this link, and to learn more about the federal and local components of the Recovering Stronger initiative, click here.