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Environmental Blog

White House Announces Another Plank in its Environmental Platform - Plan for a Sustainable Water Future

As it looks down the home stretch of its second term, the Obama Administration has been steadily ramping up measures to solidify its environmental legacy, particularly with its climate change agenda. Linked to its climate change measures is a recent Administration announcement of a program for addressing challenges with the use, conservation, and availability of water in the United States. The White House believes that the country will experience more frequent, intense, and longer droughts because of climate change impacts.

Obama Administration’s Sustainable Water Future Plan

On March 22, 2016, the White House announced its “Commitments to Action on Building a Sustainable Water Future,” outlining steps to build a sustainable water future in the United States. The Obama Administration made this announcement on the United Nations World Water Day when the White House held the first ever Water Summit. The purpose of the Water Summit was “to raise awareness of water issues and potential solutions in the United States, and to catalyze ideas and actions to help build a sustainable and secure water future through innovative science and technology.”

Drought Resilience Plan

That same day, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum on “Building National Capabilities for Long-Term Drought Resilience” (“Drought Resilience Memorandum”), with the corresponding “Long-Term Drought Resilience Federal Action Plan” (“Drought Action Plan”). The Drought Resilience Memorandum establishes the “National Drought Resilience Partnership” (“NDRP”), an interagency task force to implement actions to improve long-term drought resilience and mitigate the impacts of drought in the United States. The drought resilience initiative spelled out in these memoranda is a lynchpin of the Obama Administration’s sustainable water program announced on March 22.

The framework for the Administration’s drought resilience plan is articulated in six goals, which map out numerous federal agency actions:

  • Goal 1: Data Collection and Integration
  • Goal 2: Communicating Drought Risk to Critical Infrastructure
  • Goal 3: Drought Planning and Capacity Building
  • Goal 4: Coordination of Federal Drought Activity
  • Goal 5: Market-Based Approaches for Infrastructure and Efficiency
  • Goal 6: Innovative Water Use, Efficiency, and Technology

Implementation of these six goals falls across a wide spectrum of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, and Department of Agriculture. The actions delineated in the Drought Action Plan include weather forecasting projects, enhanced data gathering, assistance to state and local authorities in drought planning and water management, and spurring investments in water-efficiency energy systems, as well as other systems promoting water use efficiency and sustainable water management. As with other federal initiatives that span multiple agencies and areas of authority, a significant role – to be played by the NDRP – will be strengthening coordination across federal agencies on the many activities building drought resilience.

According to the Drought Action Plan, the actions called for by the White House are intended to be conducted in Fiscal Year 2016 or 2017. This timing means that many of the Executive Branch drought resilience measures could fall on the next administration to implement. In part, the ability of federal agencies to undertake the actions called for in these White House memorandum will depend on Congressional appropriations in future years and other competing federal priorities. Indeed, the Drought Action Plan explicitly recognizes that: “As funding situations change, agencies will re-evaluate and re-prioritize their drought-resilience activities.”

The Drought Action Plan also contemplates that the actions outlined by the White House are intended to be implemented using existing agency authorities. The plan thus makes clear that the drought resilience actions are not predicated on new legislation conferring additional legal authority on any of the agencies charged with taking action. The reference to existing authorities reflects the Obama Administration’s pivot from the legislative process to achieving its environmental agenda largely through regulation, Executive Order and other executive instruments.

Private Sector Initiatives and Opportunities to Address Sustainable Water Challenges

Developing measures to secure a sustainable water future and strengthen drought resilience is a multi-stakeholder effort resting on collaboration between a diverse array of entities, including private-public sector partnerships. To foster these partnerships and financing opportunities, the Administration has launched initiatives such as the Department of the Interior’s Natural Resource Investment Center and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center.

The White House memoranda enunciating the Administration’s plans highlight numerous efforts of private sector entities in promoting water sustainability. For example, investment companies have funded technologies and practices to reduce water impacts across supply chains, and venture capital firms have invested to support financing of water management systems, including for reclaimed water treatment, wastewater management, and stormwater capture. “Incubator” firms have developed initiatives to accelerate the development of water startup companies. Complementing these efforts, a number of Fortune 500 companies have made significant investments in water reuse technologies and partnerships with local governments and businesses to support the sustainability and stewardship of local watersheds.

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With the Administration’s announcement of programs to meet water challenges in the United States, there can be expanded opportunities for private sector investment in water sustainability practices and partnership with the government to develop and scale innovative technologies. These market opportunities arise both for investment firms as well as startup companies originating new water technologies and infrastructure projects. Also, forward-leaning businesses operating supply chains and other systems with water use challenges can gain recognition for innovative water practices and technologies through the sustainable water programs announced by the White House.

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