Be clear, specific and aggressive at the negotiating table for defining agricultural water policy, advises Aubrey Bettencourt, who served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department under the Trump administration.
Bettencourt had been working closely with water districts in California and Oregon “right up until the end.” In a seminar for the World Ag Expo last week, she shared her perspective on the new administration – both as a former official and as a third-generation Central Valley farmer.
“It's not just going to be about being at the table,” said Bettencourt. “It’s being at the table and knowing what you want to order.”
Throughout her long career, Bettencourt had never seen water infrastructure have as much prominence as it did within the Trump administration, and likely not since John F. Kennedy was president. Both the Biden administration and Congress will maintain a strong focus on water, she said, though it will be through the lens of climate and environment. The administrative transition is already bringing “a lot of opportunity” as programs and rules are being pulled back for review.
“We can claim our space, claim our expertise, and really lead into guiding how we want these policies to work,” she said.
Bettencourt was pleased to see agricultural groups “elbow water into infrastructure conversations” on Capitol Hill and with the new administration, with water typically relegated to second-tier status or the bottom rung.
Recent events are also influencing policy, including California’s record heat waves in 2020, which pushed the Interior Department to ratchet up operations at Hoover Dam to backstop the state’s energy grid. Meeting the state’s ambitious climate goals, meanwhile, will require updating hydropower stations and other aging energy, supply and flood control infrastructure, she added.
Bettencourt encouraged trade groups to get aggressive with any infrastructure package, particularly with one older bill being considered from California Rep. Jared Huffman, who represents the North Coast region. The measure would add certain environmental requirements onto water infrastructure funding provisions, an approach typical to California water bonds. The provisions would likely aim to tear down certain dams.
“The devil in the details,” she said. “Look out for poison pills and things that folks may try to sneak into a big package like that.”
Bettencourt encouraged farm groups to watch closely for any attempts to pull back the last administration’s efforts to streamline the permitting process for projects. The State Water Resources Control Board was locked in a battle with the Bureau of Reclamation last year over 401 water quality certifications.
EPA’s new approach was to allow projects to move forward if there has been no response after a reasonable amount of time after the project was submitted to the State Water Board for review. To counter this, the Legislature approved measures for the board to fast-track environmental reviews in order to maintain its authority over the permitting process. Central Valley state lawmakers decried the move as a water grab by the state that would hurt farmers and an attempt to stall projects the board did not agree with.
Other key legislation to watch is three recently introduced bills aimed at the reinitiation of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, or WIIN Act. Bettencourt said the act was in desperate need of reauthorization, since it plays a critical role in allowing Reclamation to run a number of programs, including for infrastructure operations and water-smart conservation programs. The bills also offer an opportunity to update processes for permitting and project reviews.
“The bureau can't do anything without being authorized to do it specifically,” she said.
According to sources on the hill, Bettencourt said to expect certain pieces of infrastructure legislation to return that did not make it into the Water Resources Development Act in 2020.
On the environmental side, Bettencourt has been seeing a lot of activity with nutrient trading, as more finances and requirements are aimed in that direction, and a “massive potential” for carbon credit markets.
“What's going to be important here is coming into that space with specificity as an industry,” she said. “Plant your flag, claim your space. We know how to farm.”
The concept must be twofold, balancing protection and sustainability with economic sustainability, she explained, adding that it must be affordable to the farmers working directly with that resource. Bettencourt said government is designed to be a regulator and waiting for them to figure out the solutions will put agriculture in a responsive posture, with definitions of carbon credits and programs to be “dictated back” to the industry, which may not achieve economic sustainability. A better approach would be to engage with the corporate sector to back the currency, she argued.
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Other opportunities exist in codifying agricultural and urban water reuse into a market-based structure “that gives us credit for the good work we do as a community and as an industry.” For on-farm conservation projects, she encouraged farmers to engage with well-established organizations like the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as ones newer to working with agriculture, such as the National Water Reuse Association. One of the sleepers in the water policy world is the Department of Energy, she said, since it holds a lot of opportunity for industry partnerships.
EPA also has a lot of overreach with water, said Bettencourt. She pointed to three Trump appointees in the agency’s Office of Water who came from agriculture at either the state or industry level and can offer insights to the Biden administration’s plans. That includes David Ross, who served as EPA’s “water chief” in the role of assistant administrator in the office.
“They accomplished an incredible amount and definitely looked out for ag,” said Bettencourt, describing meetings that brought federal officials and agricultural representatives together “to figure out how to keep EPA out of certain things.” This would involve the industry demonstrating existing environmental work for EPA to review and then asking the agency to regulate only when absolutely required. Bettencourt said this would drive effective regulation as opposed to that based on outcome or punishment.
She summed up with a warning to also watch EPA’s science office as it reviews Trump administration changes to water protections and permitting.
“A lot was done to create efficiencies and give a lot of information and a lot of authority back to the states,” she said. “If that gets pulled back, you're going to have a very strong, slow federal government on a lot of things that run through that office.”