President Obama’s budget request to Congress released on March 4 contains a number of spending priorities sportsmen should like. The budget proposes full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as strong funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and an increase in the price of the federal Duck Stamp. Important reforms to funding wildfire suppression also are proposed.
Of particular note for hunters and anglers who want to make sure we conserve water for access to quality aquatic habitat, the budget includes the strongest request to date for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program. Among other things, WaterSMART supports cost-shared grants to develop local water solutions, and it funds, in partnership with the states, studies of how to reconcile the long-term water supply and demand needs in several river basins.
At a total of $52.1 million, the request maintains the strong investment Congress made in WaterSMART in its fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and adds two new programs focused on drought response and building resilient infrastructure. (The details of those two new programs are to be announced.)
Perhaps more importantly, I’m told the budget also includes a request for Congress to raise the legal spending cap on WaterSMART by $200 million. Without such a move by Congress, many of the most important WaterSMART services will come to an end this year. (Documentation for this request should be available around March 10. I’ll update this post when more information becomes available.)
This request represents an important commitment to a highly successful program that is conserving 616,000 acre-feet of water annually – enough water for 2.5 million people each year. Much of the water conserved through this program will remain instream to support species recovery, such as salmon or endangered steelhead, or in reservoirs, thereby improving waterfowl habitat.
Legislation from Sen. Brian Schatz and five other Western senators that would extend the WaterSMART program already is working its way through Congress, reflecting support from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, too. Companion legislation in the House is forthcoming.
The president’s proposal may not play a significant role in the final spending decisions made by Congress, because Congress already has passed a budget for fiscal year 2015, and most Republicans have already panned it as a Democratic “wish list” in an election year. This is unfortunate, in part because we have just begun to see a return to normalcy in the annual budget and spending battles.
Nevertheless, sportsmen should be pleased by the priority federal decision makers are placing on a program that will help us make the most out of every drop of water we have. If Congress acts to maintain WaterSMART, we will continue to see improvements in water management, leading to more high-quality aquatic habitat and better access to hunting and fishing opportunities.