Trump plan to boost Western water by easing rules worries advocates

Hoover Dam, which supplies power to much of the Southwest, is a part of the infrastructure that delivers Colorado River water to seven states, including California, Arizona and Nevada. A plan signed Friday by President Donald Trump aims to speed other water projects in the West by streamlining regulatory reviews. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday released a plan that it said would improve water reliability and availability in the West by streamlining regulatory processes and conducting expedited reviews on water projects.

Details on the plan were scarce Friday, but environmental groups were immediately skeptical, with one advocate saying she is “sure it’s a bad idea,” despite the president’s claims that the plan will not harm the environment.

“Whatever he’s proposing to roll back protections is the wrong direction,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “It’s wrong for our health, our communities, our economy – this idea that having poor water quality and not protecting our rivers and streams would somehow be good for the economy is ludicrous.”

But President Donald Trump, who signed the proposal during a stop in Scottsdale on Friday, called it “vital to improve access to water in the American West,” where millions rely on federal water projects for crops, drinking water and power.

“What’s happened there is disgraceful,” Trump said, according to a White House pool report. “For decades, burdensome federal regulations have made it extremely difficult and expensive to build and maintain federal water projects.”

Under the memorandum “promoting the reliable supply and delivery of water in the West,” Trump directed the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality and the secretaries of the Army, Commerce, Interior and Energy to repair “uncoordinated, piecemeal regulatory actions” affecting water projects.

The memo also required that they identify “unnecessary regulatory burdens” that have prevented water projects from meeting the demands of their citizens and find ways to streamline the process “in accordance with the law.”

The plan is directed at the Central Valley Water Project in California, the Klamath Irrigation Project in Oregon and the Columbia River Basin. All the directives include strict timelines for compliance.

Trump’s memo also includes language calling for the adoption of better technology to forecast water availability and improve reliability, and to allow for local input on hydroelectric projects.

Todd Reeve, CEO of Business for Water Stewardship, said he was wary of the memo’s vague language.

“Any time there’s a notion that there are really simple fixes, they typically aren’t incorporating the full realm of factors that go into how we need to use and deliver and conserve and manage water,” Reeve said.

“When we see a really simple declaration of, ‘We’re just going to change a decision and then everybody’s going to get more water’ … it comes across without very much real meat to the concept,” Reeve said.

But Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at the Morrison Institute, said the changes should not be rejected out of hand. Porter agrees that while environmental reviews are important, the lengthy regulatory processes can stall other meaningful conservation actions.

“It’s a legitimate and important process. It doesn’t mean it can’t be streamlined,” Porter said.

“We have these processes so that there is a chance for people to raise legitimate objections, many of which are environmental,” or are related to cost, Porter said. “And so it’s important to have the processes.”

John Buse, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the idea that regulatory delays are hindering water delivery.

“California is recovering from a multiyear drought. It’s not that surprising that (water) deliveries have been cut back,” he said. “But blaming environmental considerations for those limitations, I think, is just premising the whole policy change on something that hasn’t been proven or established.”

He questioned the timing of the plan, saying the California portion could come “at the expense of an already critically destabilized Delta ecosystem … something that really just looks like midterm election pandering to Central Valley agribusiness.”

Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, said in a statement that changes ordered in the memo will undermine local efforts “in favor of loopholes, slipshod environmental reviews, and hasty, reckless decision-making for the benefit of dam operators and corporate interests.”

“All of this will be at the expense of endangered species and communities and businesses across the West that rely on healthy rivers,” Irvin said.

Bahr pointed to the administration’s environmental record and said she does not expect a change now.

“I’m sure it’s a bad idea, because everything he’s done on water, air, energy, anything having to do with a healthy safe environment, he’s gone the wrong direction,” Bahr said of Trump. “It would be no surprise that this would do the same.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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