Dr. Tim Petty, the assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of the Interior, is responsible for the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and consequently, for a wide variety of issues related to water infrastructure, water resources, energy, ecosystems, and natural disasters. Because this broad scope naturally brought Dr. Petty into contact with many other federal agencies, he and other officials at the assistant-secretary level assembled an informal water subcabinet that met monthly to discuss, plan, and execute water-related projects. With the October 2020 Executive Order (EO) on Modernizing America’s Water Resource Management and Water Infrastructure, the Trump administration formalized this water subcabinet and took other steps to streamline and coordinate the work of the various executive agencies that work on water issues. In this interview, Dr. Petty tells Hydro Leader about the importance of the new EO.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Tim Petty: I worked for 9 years in Congress with Senator James Risch of Idaho on western water and environmental issues. I also worked on two different legislative committees. I was the deputy assistant secretary for water and science at Interior under the Bush administration. That experience made me an option for the new administration. I started in January 2018 as the assistant secretary for water and science. Now, I work with Commissioner Brenda Burman, who also served as deputy assistant secretary for water and science in the past. Our team has a long history of working in the water and science hallway.
Hydro Leader: Please describe the importance of the recent EO and the water subcabinet. What are the biggest benefits of the EO for Reclamation and USGS stakeholders?
Tim Petty: I am excited about the opportunities that President Trump has established for focusing on water. In October 2018, he released a western water memorandum. Because we were able to successfully complete all seven of the sections of that memorandum ahead of schedule, the president saw the importance of what we were doing with western water and decided to apply a similar focus to water across the United States. Taxpayers expect the federal government to work collaboratively, and this EO has codified the requirement that we do so.
There are six departments identified as members of the water subcabinet. Each department then designated an assistant secretary, assistant administrator, or undersecretary to serve as their representative on the subcabinet. Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are designated the two coleads; the other four agencies include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Electrical Office, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. All those agencies have large water portfolio projects that we need to work collaboratively on.
President Trump has requested that we get together and determine which agency would be the best lead for any particular project that is being considered. A perfect example of this process was the reconsultation of the long-term operations of the Central Valley Project in California. We did the record of decision through Interior and designated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the lead agency. Interior and Commerce got the environmental impact statement and the record of decision done. Similarly, in September 2020, we completed the record of decision on the Columbia River System. Interior and Energy worked on that, and the Army Corps served as the lead. Designating one agency as the lead on a given project works phenomenally well.
In the past, when there was litigation caused by different groups suing the federal government over records of decisions, the different federal agencies were pitted against each other because they had written different decisions and interpretations of the work that they were doing on the same project. Now that we have one federal lead, we work together better. Each agency still has its own mission and requirements, and the fact that there is one federal lead agency doesn’t mean that the other agencies are subservient, but it does allow us to work together better.
In the course of the litigation over California’s decision in 2019, the judge specifically said that all participating government agencies, federal and state, had signed off on the record of decision. Interior got sued on the second day after we came out with that California record of decision, but the judge threw the lawsuit out because the different agencies could not be pitted against each other. The judge said, “We’re going to let this program work itself out and manage it.” The situation is the same on the Columbia River. The federal government has been sued by several different groups, but if the judge in the Columbia River looks at it the same way that the judge in California looked at it, they will recognize a singular U.S. government position.
Hydro Leader: You have been working with your counterparts in other federal agencies for some time now on an unofficial level. What do you see as the biggest benefit of formalizing the water subcabinet?
Tim Petty: The first section of the EO identifies over 300 existing task force working groups, many of them in areas that most of us are unaware of, and all of which require federal taxpayer money. We want to organize this so that the six relevant federal agencies are tied in to all these working groups and can make sure that they are coordinating their work on a basin-by-basin model. The main goal is not to eliminate working groups, though we do want to consolidate them; it is to make sure that we streamline their work and save money.
Hydro Leader: What are the primary focus areas of the water subcabinet, and how will the EO improve interagency coordination in these areas?
Tim Petty: The primary focus of the water subcabinet is to break down the silos between departments and agencies, aligning and leveraging federal resources to accomplish priority water actions across the United States.
Each section of the EO is laid out with a focus on large basin regions and key water sectors and directs the subcabinet to coordinate, identify, and supercharge the accomplishment of actions in each. One federal agency will take the lead to coordinate and build an action plan, prioritizing and assigning a shot clock on the work to be done.
I’ll give you two examples. Section 5 of the EO focuses on drought. Right now, the Colorado basin has had over 20 years of drought. Right beside it is the Mississippi basin, which has had more water in the last 10 years than has ever been recorded. Of these two neighboring basins, one has too much water and one does not have enough. Each has its own unique challenges and needs, and both equally need a coordinated federal family to partner with the states to maximize effective and efficient water management.
Hydro Leader: What is your message to Colorado River water users and customers?
Tim Petty: I want to communicate that the Colorado basin is a priority for us. The USGS has recently identified its next generation of water monitoring for the upper Colorado. We’re implementing new, cutting-edge technologies to monitor water resources management and quality from the mountain peaks all the way to the coast. We’re partnering with all the states, communities, and governors’ offices in the upper and lower Colorado basins to make sure that each state knows what the others are doing.
Hydro Leader: Is there anything else that you would like to add about the EO?
Tim Petty: Something that is specifically spelled out in the EO that sometimes gets overlooked is the importance of opportunities for U.S. water workers. We want the six agencies to work together to build the future of water resource managers. That is important for this next generation. The people who actually live in a given basin are the ones who understand the long history of water resources there.