By Scott Berry, Director of Policy and Government Affairs, US Water Alliance

October 27, 2020

October is coming to a close, and with few changes to the state of play in Washington, many have their sights set on November 3rd and the weeks that follow. If you aren’t one of the 60 million people who have voted early already and have questions about your registration status or polling locations, check out voter information in your state and make a plan to vote today.

Here in the District, Congress remains in a stalemate over a potential stimulus bill and any shift before the election next week looks very unlikely. While House Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin continue negotiations, any prospect of a deal is overshadowed by Republican opposition in the Senate. As Speaker Pelosi and Mnuchin have worked towards a $2 trillion bill, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has urged the White House against agreeing to any deal before November 3rd.

While not much has substantially changed in Congress since last month, the middle of October brought an unexpected Executive Order from the President on Modernizing America’s Water Resource Management and Water Infrastructure. The purported goal of the EO is to improve coordination and promote integrated planning among federal agencies. The EO also recognizes the need for workforce development in the water sector and calls for the recruitment, training, and retention of water sector professionals.

To foster inter-agency coordination, the EO makes official provides for a “Water Subcabinet,” co-chaired by the Secretary of the Interior and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Prior to the EO, a water subcabinet was convened on an informal basis. The Subcabinet will now be comprised of the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Energy, and the Secretary of the Army—notably not including the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality.

The Subcabinet is tasked with consolidating the various interagency working groups that exist to address water resource management. Implementing this work will be the Water Subcabinet designees—members from each agency who have been selected to serve on the Subcabinet. This call for interagency coordination echoes the One Water approach’s emphasis on breaking down the siloes that have characterized water management for decades.

We also can see watershed-scale thinking present in the EO, as Section 5(b) calls for strategies to address issues of water quality in the Great Lakes region, the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico watershed, and the Everglades area. Section 5(b) also references the need to examine the challenges that disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Water equity is an essential component of the One Water approach, with the first pillar of water equity being the need to ensure all people have access to clean, safe, affordable water service. However, the EO doesn’t indicate how the water challenges facing historically disinvested communities will be mitigated and could have gone much further in terms of articulating how issues of inequities in water quality could be addressed.

Section 5 also indicates the Subcabinet will be responsible for identifying a lead agency to preside over the implementation of each of the Subcabinet’s recommendations. While the ostensible benefit to determining a single lead agency is to streamline the environment review process, there are significant challenges embedded in elevating one agency over another. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency is much more often involved in oversight than in actual project delivery, meaning that it would be unlikely to be designated as the lead agency and in practice would lose equal footing with other agencies.

With respect to the water workforce, the EO calls for the Water Subcabinet, in coordination with the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Education, and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to develop recommendations for how to support state and local governments recruit and train water professionals. But without additional funding for these efforts, it will be difficult to get new workforce development programs off the ground. The Value of Water Campaign shows that investment in water infrastructure is a key driver of water jobs—economic modeling shows that if the federal government were to close the water infrastructure investment gap, it would create 800,000 new jobs.

While this EO is a step in the right direction towards sustainable and integrated water management, the need for water infrastructure investment is still paramount. Without addressing the reality that the United States is only funding one-third of our national needs, the sector will face increasing challenges as water systems age and fail, and as a changing climate puts mounting pressure on those systems. An official Water Subcabinet that codifies cross-agency collaboration is a good start towards embedding One Water principles into federal water management but the EO remains silent on the issue of water access and the needs of small, rural systems. How the implementation of the Order will address these challenges remains to be seen, and much could change in the political landscape as the next few months unfold.