Regulatory reform proponents say rebuilding the nation’s water and power infrastructure could start with dismantling the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In a Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans oversight hearing, members of congress discussed ways to improve hydropower and drinking water where NEPA came under fire for unnecessarily impeding development.

Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agriculture policy for the Heritage Foundation, blamed the aging water infrastructure on costly, time-intensive analysis required as part of such environmental statutes.

“Environmental reviews and the federal permitting process for infrastructure projects are at the center of the regulatory problem,” Bakst said. “Unnecessary federal red tape does not protect species, eliminate water pollution, or provide cleaner air. It does however make it more difficult for water and electricity to be provided to Americans.”

The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan includes a “one agency, one decision” proposal to boost efficiency in permitting reviews and project approvals.  

“It is encouraging that we now have an Administration [that] understands that federal permitting reform must be the first thing we address if we want to get serious about addressing our nation’s infrastructure needs,” Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said.

But Representative Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said the reality is the hydropower market is already saturated with dams built during the 20th century.

“And obviously the best sites - the ones that penciled out the best, the most productive - have already been taken,” Huffman said. “And yet, some of my colleagues across the aisle continue to bring these projects forward again and again, keeping the myth alive for zombie dam projects that have been kicked around for years. It’s probably not the most productive way to move forward on water infrastructure.”

Suggesting the time has come to turn away from hydropower development and focus on drinking water viability, Huffman advocated for investing in “21st century technologies” that would withstand climate change and drought. Jonathan Nelson, policy director for the Community Water Center in Visalia, California, also stressed the need for water systems modernization that would facilitate access to safe clean and affordable drinking water for a growing population.

“Many of the communities we work with have lacked safe drinking water for years. California drinking water needs alone are estimated over $5.2 billion over the next 20 years,” Nelson said. “Solutions like consolidation and building economies of scale, to stormwater capture and groundwater recharge to overlaying drought and climate vulnerability assessments as part of funding decisions all can help ensure that dollars invested today can be resilient through tomorrow.“