When it comes to critical water infrastructure in the West, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet says it is about more than dams, pipes and canals.
Water security begins in the forest, along streams and rivers that flow through farms and communities, Bennet, D-Colo., said during the Family Farm Alliance annual conference.
“As a country, we have to treat America’s landscape as essential infrastructure,” Bennet said. “Our forests are as essential to the western economy as the Lincoln Tunnel or George Washington Bridge is to New York.”
Bennet, who has served 11 years on the Senate Agriculture Committee, recently introduced legislation that would establish a $60 billion outdoor restoration fund, supporting active forest management and watershed restoration projects at a time when climate change is contributing to more extreme weather and large wildfires.
Broadly speaking, infrastructure should be a top priority for members of the new Congress, Bennet said. Once they pass the latest round of COVID-19 relief, Bennet said he expects they will pivot quickly to a comprehensive bill addressing the country’s aging roads, highways and bridges.
Century-old water infrastructure must be part of that package, Bennet said. His bill, the Outdoor Restoration Force Act, would also spur federal investment in western lands and create more than 2 million jobs.
While Bennet acknowledged $60 billion is a large price tag, he insisted the money would be better spent upfront rather than fighting fires on the back end.
“This is about the federal government taking responsibility for these national assets, which are the national forests,” he said. “These forests are our water infrastructure really as much as any physical infrastructure.”
Addressing infrastructure was identified as a top priority for the nonprofit Family Farm Alliance, based in Klamath Falls, Ore., in 2021. The organization held its two-day virtual conference Feb. 18-19, featuring panel discussions with both legislators and top officials of the Bureau of Reclamation.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said there are few communities in the West that aren’t dealing with aging infrastructure that poses environmental and water supply threats.
“There have been fixes through Congress. We know we are going to need more,” she said.
Just before the end of 2020, Congress did pass a suite of water-related bills as part of a federal omnibus spending package. One of those, the Water Supply Infrastructure Rehabilitation and Utilization Act, previously introduced by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., creates an “Aging Infrastructure Account” for maintenance work on bureau projects.
Newhouse and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., told the organization that, while the account still needs funding, it was an important first step in prioritizing water infrastructure.
“This was a huge win, I think, for our communities,” Newhouse said. “We’ve got to continue with that momentum.”
A roundtable discussion with regional leaders for the Bureau of Reclamation underscored the importance of ensuring water infrastructure remains modern, durable and efficient.
Ernest Conant, regional director for the bureau’s California Great Basin Region — which includes the Klamath Project in Southern Oregon — said the region is experiencing dry conditions, at just 53% of normal precipitation.
“It’s going to be a very difficult year,” Conant said. “Pray for rain.”
David Raff, the bureau’s chief engineer, said the the agency is investing $15.4 million through its WaterSMART program to help mitigate drought. The funding will leverage $54.9 million in cost-share with partners to complete projects in seven Western states.
Burman, the Reclamation commissioner, said she is confident the Western congressional delegations will be able to secure additional relief in the coming months.
“As a water community, we are strong,” Burman said. “As a water community, we can face anything.”