Interior Department Should Maintain Focus on Conservation

The tone and priorities of the Department of Interior will no doubt shift somewhat when Sally Jewell replaces Ken Salazar this March.  But the department should take care to maintain its commitment to water conservation under its new secretary.

While other federal agencies such as the Department of Energy and the EPA regulate water, none has as much influence over water rights and conservation as the DOI.  It is the largest water wholesaler in the country and manages a fifth of all lands, which encompass thousands of miles of freshwater.  The Bureau of Reclamation alone operates 337 reservoirs with a total storage capacity of 245 million acre-feet.

When it comes to conservation, the DOI has a checkered history, though in fairness to the agency, the same could be said for most institutions that regulate natural resources and predate the rise of modern environmentalism. Under Salazar, however, the DOI formally took the lead among federal agencies on water conservation.

In some ways, it was inevitable that the DOI would formally embrace conservation.  Climate change has made weather less predictable and has tested infrastructure that was built according to historical patterns of precipitation and snowpack melt.  Heightened environmental concerns have increased the need for dedicated instream flows.  These trends have cut into water supplies at the same time that booming populations and economies in the arid Southwest have fueled demand.

Several DOI initiatives during the Salazar years have included conservation provisions.  Connecting these has been an overarching program that Salazar launched in 2010 and that is aimed squarely at conservation – WaterSMART (Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow).

The program has its roots in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.  Subtitle F of that legislation directed the DOI to secure water supplies by, among other things, promoting water conservation, water efficiency and the use of water markets.  Salazar responded by issuing Order No. 3297, which pledges the DOI to “establishing a framework to provide federal leadership and assistance on the efficient use of water, integrating water and energy policies to support the sustainable use of all natural resources, and coordinating the water conservation activities of the various Interior bureaus and offices.”

WaterSMART requires DOI bureaus to improve collaboration, data collection, and outreach on water conservation.  It distributes grants for conservation and has set a performance goal of achieving an additional 730,000 acre-feet of water by the end of 2013.  As of October 2012, WaterSMART had already resulted in the conservation of 500,000 acre feet, according to an agency progress report.

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