ACWA CONFERENCE: The Department of Interior’s priorities for water

Deputy Assistant Austin Ewell speech at ACWA conference covers a wide range of topics, including the Water Fix, implementing the WIIN Act, streamlining the federal permitting process, and more …

In October of 2017, Austin Ewell was appointed by the Trump Administration to the post of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the US Department of Interior. Prior to his appointment, Mr. Ewell served as a regulatory consultant on a variety of projects, including water rights, development entitlements, and natural resource mitigation.  Mr. Ewell has an extensive background in water rights, development entitlements, and natural resource mitigation during his previous work in the private, public, and non-profit sectors and has specialized in water matters at the state, federal and tribal level.

At the Association of California Water Agencies fall conference held last week in Anaheim, Mr. Ewell discussed some of the Administration’s priorities for the Department and Reclamation.

Here’s what he had to say.

Mr. Ewell began by acknowledging that the process of confirming appointments has been rather slow, but earlier this month, the Senate confirmed Brenda Burman as Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation; he noted that as a veteran of the Bureau of Reclamation and of water issues in California,  her extensive experience in water projects across the West will be an incredible asset for the Department.  Dr. Timothy Petty of Idaho has been nominated for the position of the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science and is awaiting Senate confirmation; Dr. Petty is currently serving as the Deputy Legislative Director and Legislative Assistant on issues of water and natural resources, environment, science, technology, telecommunications and space for US Senator John Rich of Idaho.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s priorities for the Bureau of Reclamation include improved infrastructure, sustainable water supplies, and power generation for the future, all to foster growth throughout the West and the United States, Mr. Ewell said.  He noted that out of ten priorities for the implementation of policy and management, the two relating to water matters are to strike a regulatory balance and to modernize the infrastructure.

We use those priorities in all our decisions moving forward,” he said.


Regarding the California Water Fix, Mr. Ewell said that the Department of Interior has a strong ongoing interest in a sound policy for California water and the coequal goals for the Bay Delta for water supply and the environment.  He said the Department remains committed to working with the state to reach the coequal goals with Reclamation leading Interior’s efforts to contribute to the water program with administration support, the Fish and Wildlife Service conserving and monitoring native species and their habitats, and the United States Geological Survey providing technical expertise and policy-neutral monitoring and science to support decision making and management.

The Department also shares the goals of the state of California to deliver water with more certainty, eliminate risk to the water supply, and improve the environment; the California Water Fix has been suggested as a path to reach these goals, Mr. Ewell said.  He noted that under the current state proposal, the Department of Interior does not expect to participate in construction and funding of the Water Fix; however, Reclamation does continue to support a proposal by which the Central Valley Project contractors independently determine whether to participate in the California Water Fix project by contracting directly with DWR or other appropriate agency.

This approach is intended to avoid negative impacts to non-participants due to the Water Fix and follow beneficiary pays principle for CVP participation,” he said.  “In the meantime, Reclamation continues to work through clarifications to the biological opinions and on the implementation agreement with the Department of Water Resources.”

He also noted that Reclamation continues to support the change in point of diversion petition with the State Water Resources Control Board, and continues to be the lead agency for the ESA Section 7 and NEPA processes.  Along with Reclamation, Mr. Ewell assured that the Department will continue to work with the state and stakeholders as the project is further developed.


Mr. Ewell also noted that storage remains a significant priority.  Drought, water conservation, adequate water storage are top concerns throughout the Western states as well as for the Department of Interior; the Department is in full support of increasing water supply reliability by developing new storage capacity in California.

We recognize that new storage facilities will play a key role in improving California’s water supplies, and we continue to support and prioritize the feasibility studies for enlarging Shasta Dam, and constructing the Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs in coordination with the state and local proponents,” he said.  “Reclamation is involved in several feasibility studies, all of which have common objectives including improving water supply reliability, enhancing ecosystem resources, and providing more hydropower capability.”

He noted that these efforts have become even more important as demand for water increases, changes occur in weather patterns, and drought returns.  He assured that they are working in coordination with stakeholders and elected officials to make construction a reality and have shovels in the ground as quickly as possible.


President Trump has expressed a desire to increase funding on infrastructure, and Reclamation has been working with the Department for months to be ready to move forward on water-related investments.  Currently, the Reclamation is refining lists with the Department and providing information on their capability to obligate any new investments, he said.

One thing is certain: all of our new programs, activities, and initiatives will be cost-shared much more significantly than in the past,” Mr. Ewell said.  “Public private partnerships and alternative financing (which we call P3 for short) are options to address these cost-sharing needs.”

Mr. Ewell emphasized that while they will be pursuing developing public-private partnerships, they are not leaving our traditional model of public-public partnerships behind.  “All financing models are extremely important,” he said.  “We continue to focus on partnerships of all types.”


The Water Infrastructure for Improvements to the Nation Act, enacted in December of 2016, contained specific provisions in the WIIN Act related to water management in California.  “Under the WIIN Act, we will provide the maximum quantity of water supplies practicable without additional adverse effects to listed species,” Mr. Ewell said.  “The mechanics of making that happen are still being developed in close coordination with the contractors and stakeholders.”

The additional flexibility provided under the Act is a key tool for operating the Central Valley Project and State Water Project with new information developed subsequent to the 2008 and 2009 biological opinions, he said.

The Department continues to work closely with water users and the State of California on implementing the provisions of the WIIN Act that maximize water supplies within the constraints of the Endangered Species Act,” he said.  “Specifically, the provisions that allow for increased pumping during storm related events, improvements in science and monitoring on the physical parameters, and real-time distribution of listed species will allow for more water supply flexibility while remaining within the adverse effects anticipated to occur for the duration of the biological opinions.”

Secretary Zinke also has a strong desire to maximize the use of WIIN storage funds to create new federal and non-federal storage as soon as possible, Mr. Ewell said.  Reclamation was appropriated $67 million in fiscal year 2017 funding for WIIN storage activities and a similar amount proposed for fiscal year 2018.  They have conducted a thorough analysis of all potential and ongoing water storage projects and will propose an allocation of the WIIN funds in the coming weeks.  He noted that congressional perspectives and report language will be taken into account, as will the need to complete studies and use the funds wisely.


On August 31, 2017, Secretary Zinke issued Secretarial Order No. 3355 with the intention of expediting lengthy permitting processes.  Mr. Ewell noted that the following secretarial requirements are now in effect:

  • All environmental impact statements that Reclamation is either the lead or co-lead will be no more than 150 pages; unusually complex projects will be no more than 300 pages, excluding appendices.
  • All environmental impact statements on which Reclamation is either the lead or co-lead must be completed within one year from the issuance of the Notice of Intent to Prepare an EIS. The initial timeline must be developed before issuing the NOI.
  • Approval by the Secretary for Water and Science is required to exceed the page or the time limits.


Another important priority for the Secretary and the Administration are title transfers.  “Title transfer is an important tool for improving the management of our infrastructure, or ownership to the non-federal entities who benefit and who most often operate or pay for the construction and operations of Reclamation projects and facilities,” Mr. Ewell said.  “Secretary Zinke has expressed a strong interest in transferring Reclamation projects and facilities to non-federal entities.  This would enable local water managers to make their own decisions to improve water management at the local level and provide them greater flexibility in investing their infrastructure as the markets for financing will expand if they own the assets.  This would allow Reclamation to focus management efforts on projects with a greater federal nexus and to redirect it’s limited financial resources and technical capabilities to other high-priority activities.  Reclamation’s 2018 budget proposed a commitment to develop and submit legislation to Congress to facilitate title transfers.”


Mr. Ewell concluded by saying that the Department of Interior values the relationship with their stakeholders.  “Our focus is always on doing what is needed for our stakeholders, for the economy, and for the environment,” he said.  “There are challenges that lay before us, and we will only succeed through our partnership and participation.  I have no doubt that we will overcome those obstacles together.  And I can’t resist, since this is my first time as public employee, in saying that I’m here with the government and I’m here to help.”

Thank you very much.”

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