Water Resources and the US Presidential Election

As we come to the final week before the 2012 US presidential election, this post reviews the political platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties related to water resources.

The Democratic Party

The 2012 Democratic National Platform: Moving America Forward does not specifically address water resources, but does discuss both infrastructure and the environment. Regarding infrastructure, the platform states in general terms that:

We see an America with greater economic security and opportunity, driven by education, energy, innovation and infrastructure.

We support long-term investments in our infrastructure. Roads, bridges, rail and public transit systems, airports, ports, and sewers are all critical to economic growth, as they enable businesses to grow…. The President has proposed to go substantially further, including a significant up-front investment in our infrastructure followed by sustained increases in investment paid for with part of the savings from winding down our overseas wars, together with reforms that will better leverage government dollars and target significant projects. We will continue to partner with local communities to support their sustainable development.

There are several notable features of that policy statement. There is no mention of water resources, other than the single word “sewers.” Similarly, the platform does not contain any discussion of funding sources for infrastructure investment, other than a reference to use of savings from winding down our overseas wars. That is a confusing statement, since in the very first paragraph of the platform, the Democrats assert that “the previous administration had put two wars on our nation’s credit card.” Apparently, that’s where infrastructure investments will go also, which hardly seems like a sustainable plan for financing future infrastructure.

The policy does refer positively to sustainable development, but it is unclear what the Democrats mean by “continuing to partner with local communities.” From my perspective as a practicing natural resources and environmental attorney, I have not seen significant partnering between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local communities on sustainable infrastructure development. In fact, use of green or other sustainable infrastructure approaches continues to face significant opposition from regulators who more often than not mandate traditional grey infrastructure. There are some worthy exceptions, but those have typically been driven by local communities, not the federal government.

Regarding the environment, the Democrats assert that:

Democrats are committed to protecting our natural resources while creating jobs, preserving habitats, and ensuring that future generations can enjoy our nation’s outdoor heritage. From investing in clean energy to protecting our air, land, and water, Democrats have made protecting the environment a top priority.

The platform goes on to note three ways in which Democrats have and will continue to protect the environment: by cutting pollution, by addressing climate change, and by conserving publicly-owned lands and local wilderness areas.  Related to water:

Democrats will continue working to ensure the integrity of the waters Americans rely on every day for drinking, swimming, and fishing, by supporting initiatives that restore our rivers, oceans, coasts, and watersheds.

Water is a unique natural resource in that it constantly flows through the hydrologic cycle. Significant amounts of water are diverted and placed to beneficial use, while significant amounts are also left in rivers, lakes and groundwater basins to support future use and other environmental resources, such as wildlife, fisheries, natural landscapes and aesthetics. The Democrats’ environmental policy does not address water diversion and use at all, but merely makes a one-sided reference to restoration of rivers, oceans, coasts and watersheds. While that is an important environmental policy, it seems to avoid the difficult issues related to water diversions. The only specific policy statement favors cutting pollution, which is also cited by the Republicans and does not seem to offer a substantial point of difference between the two political parties.

The Democratic platform does mention water briefly related to international development, noting the widespread lack of access to clean water. In this arena, the Democrats noted that President Obama has announced a new strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa, although the platform does not specifically call out any investment in water development in that area of the world.

Overall, the Democratic platform contains a surprisingly sparse discussion of water resources. Governmental investment in infrastructure and active environmental protection have been strong Democratic policies in recent decades, and I would have thought the party would emphasize those policies more. The Obama administration has not provided particular leadership in either area, however, so perhaps it should not be surprising. During the past four years, my experience has been that both the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior have tended to move slowly, rely on traditional regulatory approaches and seek small, pragmatic solutions to water resource issues, rather than promoting any bold, broad vision. It appears that the Democratic party intends to continue that approach going forward.

The Republican Party

In contrast, the Republican Platform: We Believe in America contains a number of specific policies regarding water resources. While many environmentalists will no doubt disagree strongly with the Republican plans, they cannot accuse the party of failing to state what they believe.

Regarding infrastructure, the Republicans assert that:

America’s infrastructure networks are critical for economic growth, international competitiveness, and national security. Infrastructure programs have traditionally been non-partisan; everyone recognized that we all need clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports.

The platform goes on to specifically address water infrastructure:

What most Americans take for grantedsafety and availability of our water supplyis in perilous condition. Engineering surveys report crumbling drinking water systems, aging dams, and overwhelmed wastewater infrastructure. Investment in these areas, as well as with levees and inland waterways, can renew communities, attract businesses, and create jobs. Most importantly, it can assure the health and safety of the American people.

Republicans and Democrats often disagree on how infrastructure should be constructed and financed. Democrats typically support federal government grants and low-interest loans for infrastructure to be built by state and local governments. In contrast, since the 1980s, Republicans have supported the primary use of local public and private sector financing, with projects to be accomplished through public-private partnerships or other types of arrangements that seek to build infrastructure efficiently and cost-effectively. The Republicans expressly continue that approach in their platform:

A federal-state-private partnership must invest in the nation’s infrastructure: roads, bridges, airports, ports, and water systems, among others…. Interstate infrastructure has long been a federal responsibility shared with the States, and a renewed federal-State partnership and new public-private partnerships are urgently needed to maintain and modernize our country’s travel lifelines to facilitate economic growth and job creation…. All the while, the Democrats’ Davis-Bacon law continues to drive up infrastructure costs and maintenance costs for the benefit of that party’s union stalwarts.

The Republican platform includes a chapter entitled “America’s Natural Resources: Energy, Agriculture and the Environment,” which sets forth party positions favoring energy independence through development of coal, oil and natural gas, nuclear energy and renewable energy within the US borders. The chapter also asserts the Republicans’ vision of themselves as conservationists:

We are as well the party of traditional conservation: the wise development of resources that keeps in mind both the sacrifices of past generations to secure that bounty and our responsibility to preserve it for future generations…. Conservation is a conservative value. As the pioneer of conservation over a century ago, the Republican Party believes in the moral obligation of the people to be good stewards of the God-given natural beauty and resources of our country and bases environmental policy on several common-sense principles.

Those principles include that human health and safety are the most important measurements of success, economic development and private property rights in the short run must be balanced with conservation goals over the long run, science and technology are useful to advance environmentalism, and environmental stewardship is best accomplished through systems that use private property rights. In that regard, the platform makes a philosophical observation:

Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee  of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control. By the same token, the most economically advanced countries—those that respect and protect private property rights—also have the strongest environmental protections, because their economic progress makes possible the conservation of natural resources.

This focus on the use of private property rights to manage water and other natural resources also comes out in the Republican position on application of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment:

[W]e pledge to enforce the Takings Clause in the actions of federal agencies to ensure just compensation whenever private property is needed to achieve a compelling public use. This includes the taking of property in the form of water rights in the West and elsewhere and the taking of property by environmental regulations that destroy its value.

The platform specifically addresses water resources by noting that the nation’s waterways “are much healthier than they were just a few decades ago,” and anti-pollution efforts have been a great success. Regarding water supplies, the platform notes that:

This summer’s lack of rainfall over much of agricultural America highlights the importance of access to water for farmers and ranchers alike. We stand with growers and producers in defense of their water rights against attempts by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to expand jurisdiction over water, including water that is clearly not navigable; [and]

Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.

The Republican emphasis on protection of water rights and suggestion that control of western waters should be pushed to water users rather than federal agencies are not surprising. While readers of this blog will know that I strongly support the use of private entitlements and market mechanisms to manage water resources, it is not always clear that Republicans are dedicated to using those tools for responsible, sustainable water management, as opposed to simply grabbing natural resources for private use without any true concern for protection of the public interest in the commons. I am disappointed that the Republican platform does not clearly express the need for sustainable development of water resources, or acknowledge the difficulty of balancing the private entitlement of water right holders against the public interest of us all. In addition, Republicans should not have mentioned the technical legal dispute over the jurisdictional scope of the Clean Water Act in the same sentence as this year’s drought; the two issues are completely separate.


Notably missing from the platforms of both parties were several important issues:

  • Recognition of the water-energy-food nexus. Smart non-governmental organizations and private corporations are increasingly recognizing the ways in which those three resources are inextricably linked, but government and the political system are generally trailing behind. Neither party made the connection.
  • Lack of any specifics regarding how future water supplies should be secured. Both parties should have supported significant improvements in water use efficiency, increased water recycling and reuse, active management of streams and groundwater basins, and desalination of brackish groundwater and seawater.
  • Lack of any discussion regarding how future water infrastructure will be funded. The Republican platform mentioned public-private partnerships for transportation infrastructure, but did not specifically support those arrangements in the water sector. Both parties should have included statements to the effect that future water infrastructure improvements must be funded by water users, with minimal subsidies from the federal or state governments. In addition, user fees must be used efficiently, through the use of P3s and other types of performance contracting, as well as the promotion of competition in the water utilities industry.

Overall, I would grade the Democrats a “C-” for failing to provide either a philosophical vision or detailed policies regarding water resources, but in their vagueness not saying anything too unintelligent. I would grade the Republicans a “B-” for a vision that promotes Economic Liberalism (good) while still holding onto Economic Traditionalism (less good), and specific policies that range from support for P3s (good) to an unhelpful fixation on isolated waters and regulatory takings.

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