Federal Funding Provides Some Wins for Water Conservation and Birds in the West
In March, Congress passed and President Biden signed a federal spending bill that will fund the government through September 30, 2022. Overall, the funding is a win for conservation and provides helpful increases for programs that address climate change, build community resilience, and protect birds and wildlife. Compared with four years of drastic funding cuts implemented from 2016-2020, this bill sets the stage for a positive trend in federal funding for the environment.
One bright spot is the (at least) $1.25 million included for Saline Lakes science, a key Audubon priority. In addition to this startup funding, Audubon is hopeful that Congress works to pass the bipartisan Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act and additional appropriations for this critical assessment and monitoring program.
For the Colorado River, the spending bill is a bit of a mixed bag. The Cooperative Watershed Management Program received only $5 million, which is a slight increase over the $4.25 million it received last year, but far below our request of $20 million. However, this program received a huge boost in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—$200 million over five years. And the relatively new Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program received only $100,000 in Fiscal Year (FY)22, but will benefit from $250 million over five years in IIJA funding. These programs fund multi-benefit projects that support rivers, wetlands, communities, and water users and we are hopeful they continue to receive additional funding in future years. Audubon urges Congress to continue boosting annual funding for programs like these. Coupled with the historic amounts of funding in the IIJA, the river is receiving an influx of funding over the next few years to address the ongoing drought and water challenges.
We were also pleased to see that funding for the operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant was prohibited by the omnibus bill. Audubon remains opposed to the operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant, and encourages Congress to continue prohibiting appropriations for this purpose, as it would decimate irreplaceable bird habitat in the Colorado River Delta, particularly in the Ciénega de Santa Clara. And, the Lower Colorado River Basin received $25 million to implement the Drought Contingency Plans (DCP); this critical funding is in addition to $250 million in the IIJA, pointing to ongoing interest in ensuring these plans are implemented effectively.
For the Department of Agriculture, several important conservation programs were fully funded (meaning they received no cuts)—these include the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). RCPP promotes innovative regional approaches to improve the health of working landscapes and rivers with partner-driven, multi-benefit projects. EQIP promotes the voluntary application of land use practices to maintain or improve the condition of natural resources, including grassland health, water quality, and wildlife habitat. Both of these helps support overall watershed health and build the resilience of these ecosystems.
Finally, the FY22 spending bill included Congressionally Directed Spending projects (previously known as earmarks) for the first time in many years. Audubon supported numerous project requests, and was pleased to see $2.546 million for a Salton Sea Research Project, secured by Representative Vargas. And, Representative Stanton secured $1.841 million for the Tres Rios project in Arizona, which Audubon also supported.
Audubon looks forward to the implementation of this funding for on-the-ground conservation activities, habitat restoration projects, and community resilience efforts. Federal dollars are critical to addressing climate change and the ongoing Western drought and aridification. Protecting watersheds protects people and birds, particularly in the West.
Looking ahead, President Biden released his FY23 budget on March 28, which initiated the appropriations process for the rest of this fiscal year. While the budget is only a statement of priorities and Congress will decide the actual spending amounts, Audubon was pleased to see investments for clean energy research, a civilian conservation corps, and equity initiatives to help historically marginalized communities.
The budget appropriates $1.4 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the West’s major waterways. This funding would include $2.254 million for the Cooperative Watershed Management Program and $500,000 for the Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program. Audubon urges Congress to fully fund these programs at $20 million and $15 million, respectively. Audubon also supports a full $5 million for the Saline Lakes science program at USGS, to build upon the initial investment made last year. We will be working with our partners to support other conservation programs and projects for FY23, and help continue this positive trend in funding.
Audubon urges the Administration and Congress to continue increasing funding amounts for programs that restore habitat, build community resilience, combat climate change and its devastating effects, and protect the places that people and birds need.