The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, commonly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, allocates $250 million to the Bureau of Reclamation to fund aquatic restoration projects. This summer, Reclamation will develop a funding opportunity for project selection. Hydro Leader spoke with David Raff, Reclamation’s chief engineer, about the Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program’s new funding flows.
Hydro Leader: Please introduce yourself and tell us how you came to be in your current position.
David Raff: I started with Reclamation in 2003, working in the Technical Service Center, where I primarily focused on flood hydrology and risk associated with dams. I subsequently worked in the policy office on long-term water resources, sustainability, and climate change and on ensuring that water supplies and demands are in balance. Then I spent some time with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working on hydrology and hydraulics, before returning to Reclamation in 2016 as the agency’s science advisor. In 2020, I became the chief engineer—a historic position that had been vacant for a couple of decades. I oversee a variety of directorates, including dam safety and infrastructure, research and development, data management, the Technical Service Center, our power resources office, and the water resources and planning office, where Reclamation houses its WaterSMART grant program.
Hydro Leader: Please give us an overview of Reclamation’s aquatic ecosystem restoration work.
David Raff: Reclamation has decades of experience working in aquatic restoration. Our programs over the past 20–30 years include the Trinity River Restoration Program, the Upper Colorado Recovery Implementation Program, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Recovery Program, and the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, to name a few. All these programs have been focused largely on aquatic restoration. Many of our activities are designed to ensure that we are following our Endangered Species Act obligations and addressing other environmental concerns. They focus on restoring rivers, providing spawning habitat, providing habitat for bird species, and removing barriers to fish and aquatic systems. Since 2012, Reclamation has also supported aquatic ecosystem restoration planning led by local watershed groups through the WaterSMART Cooperative Watershed Management Program. Additionally, as a result of recent amendments to the SECURE Water Act, Reclamation can now provide cost-shared funding for on-the-ground ecosystem restoration projects led by nonfederal applicants under the Environmental Water Resources Projects funding opportunity.
Hydro Leader: What kind of funding does the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provide to Reclamation for aquatic restoration work?
David Raff: The Aquatic Restoration Restoration Program authority was enacted by Public Law 116‑260, section 1109, the Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Act. The actual authority was authorized in December 2020 as part of an omnibus appropriations law passed at the time. The authorization provided for up to $15 million in appropriations each year from 2023 through 2026, but it was not appropriated at that level. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, enacted in 2021, provided $250 million for the authority provided in section 1109 of PL 116‑260.
Hydro Leader: Would you introduce the new program?
David Raff: The Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program is focused on the design, planning, and construction of new restoration projects that improve aquatic habitat and fish passage and remove fish barriers. These individual projects have benefits across the entire watershed. As I mentioned, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law authorized and appropriated $250 million for this program over a 5‑year period. However, in 2022, during the development of this program, we do not have an allocation for the restoration program, so that $250 million will actually be allocated over 4 years, beginning in 2023. This summer, we will be developing a funding opportunity for the consideration of project proposals. A notice of funding opportunity will go out in fall 2022, and we hope to begin awarding projects in early 2023. There will be an opportunity for comments on that funding opportunity, including the criteria for selecting projects.
Hydro Leader: How can applicants present their work to best fit this program?
David Raff: Projects will need to meet the criteria described in the notice of funding opportunity. Projects can be in the design or the construction stages and should be focused on things like improving habitat, reconnecting floodplains, improving fish passage, or removing culverts or other barriers. I’ll add that the new authority differs from our existing authorities in that the cost share is different. The federal government can provide up to 65 percent of private costs through financial assistance, though operation and maintenance costs are not eligible under the program.
Hydro Leader: Will Reclamation also be hiring internally to step up this program?
David Raff: We had an internal candidate who was interested in helping set up this program, Genevieve Johnson, who works in our Water Resources and Planning Office. She was the primary person responsible for standing it up. Reclamation does see a need and is hiring to implement the broad authorities of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, specifically for this program. You mentioned that this is a funding opportunity for outside entities. That’s correct. The statute states that this money is available to outside entities through financial assistance. Ms. Johnson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hydro Leader: Is there anything else you would like to add?
David Raff: I can’t really say a lot about the specifics until we develop the funding opportunity. We plan to fund a variety of projects and are hoping to get broad interest. It is a significant amount of money that we hope complements the historic programs that we’ve been working on for decades.
Hydro Leader: What is your vision for the best way to balance hydropower generation and aquatic restoration in the future?
David Raff: We have been putting a huge emphasis on hydropower as a renewable resource, one that provides ancillary benefits beyond those that have been promoted in the past. It can generate power on a cloudy or nonwindy day and can support the general electric grid through black start capability. Any hydropower activities must be balanced with our other mission obligations, including ensuring a sustainable ecosystem. We have been doing significant work to promote hydropower, and we recently signed a memorandum of understanding with a variety of entities, including our federal partners, to coordinate efforts in promoting hydropower. Your readers can learn more about the WaterSMART program or the Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program at usbr.gov/watersmart.