For several decades, Congress has considered omnibus water development acts every 2 or so years; these laws are frequently entitled the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). On December 27, 2020, President Trump signed P.L. 116‑260, which included WRDA 2020. In this interview, National Water Resources Association President Christine Arbogast tells us about the new legislation and what it means for western water providers and users.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Christine Arbogast: From high school on, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I was the editor of my high school paper and started out as a journalism major in college and was the editor of the student newspaper. I ended up double-majoring in journalism and political science, and my goal was to be a political reporter.
I started my career as a reporter for two small Colorado newspapers, one of which was located in Durango, Colorado. I did a lot of reporting on the two local Indian tribes and on water-related stories, including on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dolores Project in the Cortez area and the controversial proposed Animas–La Plata Project just outside Durango.
I reported for about 4 years, until a gentleman from my hometown, Ray Kogovsek, was elected to Congress. The man who ran his campaign was my college political science advisor, and he advised Ray to hire me as his press secretary. I thought that it would incorporate a number of my interests and decided to do it for one term—I didn’t want to live in Washington, DC, longer than that.
Colorado’s third congressional district is vast. Geographically, it’s the eighth-largest congressional district in the country. Natural resources and water are huge issues for the district. Congressman Kogovsek got on the House Interior Committee, which is now the House Natural Resources Committee, and I worked with the legislative assistant who did water. I ended up staying there for 5½ years. When Ray decided not to run for reelection, I came back to Colorado and went to work for the Colorado commissioner of agriculture. I did some special projects with him, including the launch of Always Buy Colorado, which is now called Colorado Proud.
When he returned to Colorado, Ray started a small lobbying firm called Kogovsek & Associates and asked me to come back to work for him. We were different because we were based in Colorado and offered our clients much more reasonable rates than a DC-based firm. Our first clients were some of the water districts we had worked with when Ray was in Congress and the two Indian tribes that I knew so well.
It was then I started attending National Water Resources Association (NWRA) meetings. I was young and I was a woman, which was unusual. People figured I must be someone’s daughter. I got the same reaction at the Colorado Water Congress, which I started attending at the same time. I have been going to the meetings of the NWRA and the Colorado Water Congress, along with the Family Farm Alliance after its inception, ever since. When I first started attending, I never aspired to be the president of the NWRA, but I was made chair of the federal affairs committee, and I got to be more and more immersed in it.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the Women in Water scholarship fund, which you helped found.
Christine Arbogast: Female participants in the NWRA and the Colorado Water Congress often looked around and realized that there were few women. When Cheryl Zittle was in line to become the first woman president of the NWRA in 2017, she and I were at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas. Brenda Burman, who was a friend of ours, had just been confirmed as the first female commissioner of Reclamation. We were thrilled and decided we needed to start an organization to promote women in the water field. We started holding gatherings during NWRA meetings. The scholarship idea came from Dawn Moore, who said that she would contribute money to it. We decided to merge the scholarship fund and the women’s group. Cheryl Zittle, Dawn Moore, Leslie James, Annick Miller, and I form our board of directors. We’ve awarded two scholarships so far; 2021 will be our third year.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about WRDA 2020. What are some of the major things in it that the folks NWRA represents are interested in?
Christine Arbogast: Most importantly, WRDA 2020 established a fund within Reclamation to address aging infrastructure, which has been a priority of the NWRA for many years. Reclamation has been the traditional vehicle for financing projects. You would get an authorization bill, then an appropriation following the president’s budget request, and away you’d go. Water infrastructure projects were funded up front by Reclamation, and the beneficiaries would sign repayment contracts under the terms of which they would repay some of or all the costs over a long period of time.
Over time, that changed, in part because of growing concerns about deficit spending and the difficulty of appropriating funds. There were also changes in the view and role of the Office of Management and Budget, which wanted to reduce the amount of appropriations that agencies needed to request. There were even questions about whether there was a real federal interest in water infrastructure, which is something that stuck in the craw of the water community. Overall, getting financing has become more difficult.
When it comes to aging infrastructure, there are arguments about how much responsibility belongs to Reclamation and how much belongs to the districts that operate and maintain the infrastructure. This year’s WRDA bill opened the door for some ability to address that.
Because WRDA is always strongly bipartisan and always passes, it has become a vehicle for other water policy, especially as smaller pieces of legislation have become more difficult to pass. However, there’s always some resistance to adding Reclamation-related provisions into it because it is traditionally a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bill.
Municipal Water Leader: Were there any disappointments about things that did not make it into WRDA 2020?
Christine Arbogast: There was some disappointment that WRDA 2020 did not address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The PFAS issue is complicated. Normally, you find the source of a contaminant and eliminate or effectively treat it. However, the source of PFAS is often military operations, so there are interests and stakeholders involved from outside the usual water community. It’s proven to be a difficult problem to solve from the scientific, economic, and political perspectives. There have been attempts to address it from several angles, including in the National Defense Authorization Act.
There were also disappointments related to the expansion of the revolving funds. There were provisions and a bill sponsored by Senator Martha McSally that didn’t make it into WRDA. There was a lot of authorizing stuff that got left on the table, but some strides were made. What didn’t get done in the 116th Congress sets the table for the 117th.
Municipal Water Leader: What is on the NWRA’s agenda for 2021, especially considering the new administration and the new composition of Congress?
Christine Arbogast: Our immediate focus, which is a constant focus, is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. Infrastructure is something that President Biden talks about. President Trump talked about it as well. Our priority is to make infrastructure an action item, not just a buzzword.
Based on everything that I’ve read and heard from President Biden, I think the administration is going to work with Congress to put something broad on the table like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 that followed the financial collapse of 2007–2008.
Nothing comprehensive was put on the table by the Trump administration, but things were introduced in Congress. There was a lot of talk of infrastructure, but there wasn’t a big package like the ARRA. Infrastructure efforts were more subtle and somewhat chunked up, with transportation bills separate from water resources.
Over the last few years, there have been significant plus-ups in the appropriations process for Reclamation and the Army Corps. It was infrastructure investment. Reclamation’s budget, which stayed flat at $1 billion for years and years, started climbing up to $1.3 billion. In 2020, it was almost $1.6 billion. But that increase still was not on the scale we need.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your outlook on how the Biden administration’s environmental agenda may affect the western water community?
Christine Arbogast: President Biden signed some executive orders that attempt to change regulatory reforms that the Trump administration put in place. I am not well versed on the exact details of how those various reforms might be altered, reversed, or shelved. That process is affected by when those new regulations were proposed and finalized. The Waters of the United States rule and the new National Environmental Policy Act rule will be treated differently. The same may be true of things that have just come out in the last 2–3 months. In some instances, the Congressional Review Act may apply. In other instances, the rules may have to be completely rewritten. All those details will have to be studied by legal experts who know which mechanism applies to each of those rules.
Now, we have to figure out what our strategy is going to be for each of those topics. There are going to be things we like and things we don’t. We will have to figure out which changes in the regulatory reforms that were enacted by the previous administration we’ll have to focus on for our membership and the western water community, including water providers and their beneficiaries. We will focus on the changes that most profoundly affect the day-to-day delivery of safe drinking water and ag water. We’re not going to be able to fight over every single detail. Just as we did when the new rules were developed by the last administration, we’re going to have to look at the proposals and figure out which parts of this we are going to spend energy and political capital on.
I am really pleased that President Biden, with his long experience working through congressional processes as a United States Senator, is our new president, but President Trump’s administration did achieve some of the things that have been western water priorities for a number of years, and we primarily got to those priorities through the regulatory process. Just as we participated in the development of those reforms, we will have to participate in whatever changes the new administration puts on the table. We’ll do the best we can to make sure that the final outcome is the least harmful outcome for western water’s work to preserve the quality of life and the prosperity of the West.
Municipal Water Leader: How can you most successfully make your case about specific policies to the policymakers on Capitol Hill?
Christine Arbogast: I have always believed as a lobbyist that my most convincing policy arguments are not based on what I think or what I believe the effects of a policy are. They come from the people who have to perform their jobs and their duties according to the laws that policymakers pass. The stories of the real-life effect of a government action are the best lobbying tool you have. The 535 members of Congress cannot be experts on western water, not just because not all of them are from the West, but because it’s a specialized field. When you speak to policymakers about a specific decision, you need to do so in a way that is easy to comprehend. The easiest way to comprehend something is to be able to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who has to deal with that action.
The other top priority is telling the truth—being honest about what you’re asking a policymaker to do. If you don’t tell the truth, you have no credibility, and without credibility you’re not going to carry the day.
There are a lot of new policymakers, and there will be more as the political appointees at the subcabinet level are filled out in the various departments. For those of us who have been doing this for a long time, it is an opportunity for us to refresh our skills and build relationships. The change in administration also demonstrates how vitally important it is to address western water policy in a bipartisan way. The same holds true for Congress. With an evenly split Senate and a very narrow margin for the Democrats in the House, I am confident as well as hopeful that bipartisan solutions are possible.