Comprehensive, Coordinated Approach Needed to Manage R.I.’s Natural Waters

By AMES COLT

Budget Article 16, as currently worded, dissolves the Rhode Island Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team (BRWCT) and grants control over the fee revenue fund established for the BRWCT to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

As justification, the Gov. Gina Raimondo administration argues that the BRWCT doesn’t merit continued pursuit as an interagency water resources planning and management institution, and that the fee revenue funds it managed should be used to (continue to) support baseline aquatic environmental monitoring, staff the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) and increase support for DEM’s Office of Water Resources.

In its consideration of Budget Article 16, the General Assembly should review the intent and mandates of the BRWCT statute and evaluate the efforts of the executive branch to implement this statute. I offer these comments in support of such a review by the General Assembly and summarize some of the lessons learned during the eight-plus years I served as the agency’s chair.

The mission
Contrary to statements by the Raimondo administration, coordinating efforts to improve water quality in Narragansett Bay was only part of the BRWCT mission. The General Assembly created the BRWCT in 2004 in response to the conclusions and recommendations of the House Bay Trust Study Commission. While the August 2003 Greenwich Bay fish kill galvanized public concern for the health of Narragansett Bay, that event was just one reason why the General Assembly established the BRWCT. Also of concern was the controversy that arose in response to proposals in the late 1990s for a “mega-port” at Quonset-Davisville and how that controversy revealed a lack of a vision and strategic thinking about Rhode Island’s water-reliant economy.

The Bay Trust Commission report should serve as an important basis for assessing the implementation of the BRWCT statute. Are the issues and concerns raised in the Bay Trust Commission report still important to the General Assembly? If so, are those concerns being adequately addressed by the executive branch?

If the General Assembly concludes that the concerns and stipulations laid out in the Bay Trust Commission Report haven’t been adequately addressed and that the approach described in Budget Article 16 doesn’t entail an acceptable alternative to the BRWCT, then the General Assembly should assess alternative approaches to fulfilling the goals expressed in the BRWCT statute, and how such approaches could be better incorporated into state government.

The BRWCT is responsible for coordinating and advancing a systems-based approach to the management of and state investment in all of the Ocean State’s natural waterbodies, and advancing development of Rhode Island’s water-reliant economy. The following excerpts from the Bay Trust Study Commission report illuminate the General Assembly’s concerns and priorities regarding how we manage and sustainably utilize Rhode Island’s waters:

“The Rhode Island House Bay Trust Study Commission was established ... to study the status of the state’s current system for policy formulation and planning for the environmental management and sustainable economic development of Rhode Island’s bays and watersheds.”

The commission examined successful structures and processes being utilized in other areas of the country, Rhode Island’s current management structure and the history of past planning and implementation efforts in the state, and potential economic impacts associated with bay and watershed management.

The commission’s work emphasis was placed on identifying and discussing the appropriate role of the General Assembly in managing the state’s bays and watersheds.

The commission studied the structure and processes in other regions and states, including the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. Through its investigation, the commission identified elements that formed the foundation of successful planning and implementation:

Coordination of activities of state, federal and local government and non-government entities through an established structure and process.

A coordinated funding approach for both annual and long-term funding needs.

Monitoring programs to evaluate progress toward goals.

A structure and process defined in statute that best utilizes executive and legislative branches of government and which incorporates public participation.

“In each of the models from other areas of the country, the structure and process were created by statute and are based on the establishment of a core group or team of appropriate state agencies charged with coordinating the planning and implementation of environmental restoration and protection initiatives and associated economic development. This is accompanied by requirements to develop and report on long-term plans, annual work plans and budgets, monitoring programs, and progress evaluations. State legislatures set overall goals and priorities and function in an oversight role. The responsibilities of the executive branches are plan development and implementation.

“In contrast, Rhode Island lacks a structure and process codified in law that provides for coordination, performance accountability and continuity over time. Despite numerous planning initiatives in the past, the Commission finds that the state still lacks an up-to-date workable comprehensive plan that includes both environmental management and sustainable economic development of businesses that rely directly or indirectly on the state’s bays and watersheds, a multi-year funding strategy for planning and implementation measures, and a consistent monitoring program. There is no structure required by law for the coordination of the entities involved with bay and watershed management. The overall goals have continually been shifted and priorities have not been set. Also, there is no clear means of providing for legislative oversight, or for providing continuity from one executive branch administration to the next.

“The governance structure for bay and watershed management that evolved over time in Rhode Island is fractured. It is not an integrated system with functional interactivity and procedural regularity. Planning and management authorities need to be updated. The agencies involved with bay and watershed management need to function in a holistic way based on systems principles. There needs to be a more efficient and coordinated approach to bay and watershed management.

“There is a need to define, in statute, a process and structure that provides for coordination, collaboration, and cooperation among all the entities involved, and that provides for continuity over time. Such a structure or body will provide a unified approach to bay and watershed management.

“Establishing a structure for coordination is also important in that it will enable the legislature to exercise its goal setting and oversight roles more efficiently. The Commission finds that it is both appropriate and necessary for the General Assembly to set goals and priorities, and to exercise an oversight role regarding the planning, policy development, and implementation of protection and restoration measures for the state’s bays and watersheds. This needs to include ensuring that this work is integrated with planning for sustainable economic development of businesses that rely directly or indirectly on the bays and watersheds. These roles of the General Assembly are particularly important in managing the state’s bays and watersheds.”

So what has happened with the BRWCT? In a nutshell, the governors that I served under didn’t communicate consistently to agency leaders their support and expectations for the BRWCT. Accordingly, agency leaders came to utilize the BRWCT to pursue individual agency needs and priorities, rather than committing themselves to implementation of the agency’s responsibilities. And, although the General Assembly took an important step in fiscal 2007 when it created two fees dedicated to underwriting the functions of the BRWCT, with regard to the agency’s planning and reporting requirements, the General Assembly didn’t monitor vigorously its implementation.

It would take sustained commitment by both the legislative and executive branches for the BRWCT to function as envisioned. Particularly with regard to the executive branch, there was simply never the commitment necessary for the agency to achieve its potential.

Noted accomplishments
Despite impoverished engagement in the BRWCT by state executive leaders, the agency achieved a number of significant accomplishments. It expanded and deepened collaboration among the participating senior staff of BRWCT agencies. It conducted a major analysis of maritime port development opportunities, in partnership with the General Assembly’s special legislative commission on maritime ports. It consolidated state joint funding agreements with the U.S. Geological Survey for large river water quality, groundwater and streamflow monitoring. It advocated for a major overhaul of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, which was accomplished in 2013.

It conducted, in partnership with Commerce RI, a comprehensive study of the economic benefits generated by the 2012 America’s Cup regatta in Newport, a study that continues to be utilized by Sail Newport to promote large yachting events. It helped the Rhode Island Rivers Council renew and revitalize its membership and increase the scope of its activities.

It partnered with Rhode Island municipalities to assess the value and need for stormwater management districts, with the state’s first municipal stormwater management district likely to be established by West Warwick this year.

Finally, the BRWCT was preparing to coordinate and integrate efforts in the upper bay to address combined sewer overflows, nutrients discharges, and stormwater infrastructure rehabilitation and enhancement. This trio of inter-related initiatives comprises the most important Narragansett Bay management challenge in the coming years. Because of the potentially enormous costs of these efforts, mishandling the integrated pursuit of these projects will foment political and public controversy regarding affordability, and likely litigation, with the ultimate outcome being little progress in addressing upper Narragansett Bay’s water quality impairments, ecological health and resilience to climate change.

Advisory committees
An important component of the BRWCT is its four mandated advisory committees, via which it was expected that the BRWCT member agencies — DEM, Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), Department of Administration, Commerce RI, Narragansett Bay Commission, R.I. Rivers Council and Water Resources Board — were to engage a diverse set of stakeholders in their formulation and implementation of the BRWCT systems-level plan (SLP).

One incident is particularly illustrative of how difficult it has been to maintain all of these advisory committees. In January 2009, about six months after the release of the first BRWCT SLP, the co-chairs of the BRWCT Public Advisory Committee informed me that they would no longer lead or participate in the Public Advisory Committee because they had concluded that the BRWCT member agencies weren’t going to utilize the SLP or the BRWCT as intended. These public interest stakeholders couldn’t be expected to take on voluntarily such advisory responsibilities if they had concluded that the executive authorities critical to their priorities and values weren’t going to engage credibly in the agency’s advisory and planning processes.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council and its former director, Kip Bergstrom, did an excellent job leading the BRWCT Economic Monitoring Collaborative from 2004-07. Unfortunately, when the Carcieri administration terminated the Economic Policy Council — by folding it into the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation — no one else stepped up to lead and administer the BRWCT Economic Monitoring Collaborative.

In sum, the struggles encountered in maintaining and advancing the BRWCT advisory committees stemmed from a lack of engagement by the executive branch. On the other hand, the R.I. Environmental Monitoring Collaborative has continued to move forward, thanks in large part to support from DEM’s Office of Water Resources, the URI Coastal Institute — which is required by state law to lead the collaborative — and the Narragansett Bay Commission.

Strategic planning
In her testimony in support of Budget Article 16 given to the House Finance Committee on April 1, DEM Director Coit stated that the “bay-wide budgeting or bay-wide approach that was conceived of in the (BWCT) legislation never came to pass.” I agree and disagree. (And again, the BRWCT isn’t concerned solely with Narragansett Bay, but all of the state’s natural waters and their human uses.)

The BRWCT’s core strategic planning responsibilities are: 1) development of a systems-level plan” that establishes overall goals and priorities for the management, preservation and restoration of the state’s bays, rivers and watersheds, and the promotion of sustainable economic development water resources; 2) submission to the General Assembly of an annual work plan that prescribes the necessary projects, programs and activities each member of the team shall perform for the following fiscal year to implement the systems-level plan.

Development of the first SLP in 2007-08 was definitely a success. What the BRWCT subsequently struggled with was implementation of the SLP, in particular utilizing the SLP to execute the agency’s annual work-planning mandate. The BRWCT issued the first SLP in 2008. This plan fulfilled the requirements of the statute and offered a comprehensive set of water resource protection, restoration, management and sustainable development goals, policies and strategies, categorized into eight policy domains: coastal and waterfront development; watersheds; water-reliant economy; natural hazards; freshwater supply; water quality; fisheries and aquaculture; and aquatic habitats and invasive species.

The 2008 SLP still captures well the issues and challenges we face today in managing and sustainably using Rhode Island’s marine and freshwater resources. It remains one of the only successful efforts to articulate a holistic perspective regarding the management of Rhode Island’s freshwater and marine resources and their human uses.

The SLP was written to facilitate comprehensive evaluation of agency efforts to meet shared management goals. It remains a useful means or basis for anyone, inside or outside of government, to evaluate our progress toward the full spectrum of Rhode Island’s water management and utilizations goals.

With regard to the BRWCT’s annual work plan mandate, it was unquestionably very difficult to inspire and facilitate its pursuit. As defined in the BRWCT statute, the annual work plan would have required a substantial effort situated within the state’s annual budgeting process that would summarize and link those programs and initiatives located within seven agencies that advanced the SLP’s goals and strategies. No effort was ever made to add such an annual work plan to the governor’s budget, or to provide it separately to the General Assembly.

Ultimately, the BRWCT was obliged to reduce the scope of its annual work plans to describing and justifying the projects that the BRWCT agreed to support with its fee revenue funds.

Nevertheless, the BRWCT annual work plan mandate presents an unprecedented opportunity for the governor, the BRWCT agencies and the General Assembly to review, discuss and agree collaboratively on annual budgets and work plans based upon an integrated framework of water resources management and sustainable development goals.

I am sympathetic to the effort in Budget Article 16 to provide additional staff and operational resources for DEM. DEM urgently needs them. But Budget Article 16 takes the easier, ultimately weaker, approach to remedying DEM capacity shortfalls, and it neglects to address equally dire shortfalls in other BRWCT agencies.

Far preferable in the long run would be to utilize a robust BRWCT annual work planning process to present to the General Assembly and all Rhode Islanders a comprehensible, detailed statement of actual staff and operational needs for successful water resources management and sustainable development. That is precisely the intent in the BRWCT statute.

Budget Article 16
This article incorporates much language from the BRWCT statute regarding the geographic scope of the interagency’s planning responsibilities and its mission to balance and integrate environmental management and economic development values, while also proposing to grant DEM sole authority over use of the Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Fund.

Budget Article 16 is for the most part silent on how other state agencies and stakeholders would participate in these funding decisions. The article’s reference to the EC4 as the interagency body that will advise DEM on use of the Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Fund is worrisome, because the EC4 lacks mandate to undertake for the collaborative, interagency decision and planning processes for water resources engendered in the BRWCT statute and bylaws.

The article would thus bring an end to a well-crafted process by which water management and sustainable utilization priorities are collaboratively developed, communicated and implemented, replacing it with what could become an opaque process whereby a single agency dictates the use of the Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Fund, a modest but indispensable source of support for water resources planning, management and evaluation.

A bit of speculation: By incorporating into Budget Article 16 major pieces of the BRWCT statute, the Raimondo administration may be seeking to demonstrate that the stated purpose of the fees established to support the BRWCT isn’t being significantly altered. But in the absence of the strategic planning and collaborative decision-making requirements of the BRWCT, the intended utilization of fee revenues as described in earlier fee-rule promulgations may be transformed so substantially that a new rule-making process would have to be undertaken.

Even if this major alteration to the original purpose of the fees were deemed legal, it would signal to the public that state government shouldn’t be trusted to utilize the proceeds from dedicated fees in the manner originally stated. Such public distrust is already evident in numerous public policy and finance discussions, such as the establishment of municipal stormwater management districts.

The General Assembly should be exceedingly cautious about accepting any alteration to the purpose of a user fee without requiring re-promulgation of the fee, because of the risk that such alterations would be publicly perceived as a covert means to plug agency budget gaps; especially as user fees in the future are likely to be an important source of support for water resources management.

Another goal of Budget Article 16 is to redirect the BRWCT’s fee revenue funds to supporting the EC4 — the assumption being that the EC4 renders the BRWCT redundant because four of the BRWCT member agencies also sit on the EC4. However, the statutory missions and functions of the BRWCT and EC4 are distinct and Budget Article 16 is silent on how the interagency planning responsibilities assigned to the BRWCT would be handled by the EC4.

Importantly, the BRWCT possesses robust interagency strategic planning and reporting responsibilities that the EC4 lacks.

Conclusion
Given the paucity of support for the BRWCT, it has evolved into essentially a grants program, with an annual budget of between $650,000 and $700,000 that is administered collaboratively by the BRWCT agencies. The BRWCT became increasingly oriented toward the pursuit of at times ad hoc interests of the BRWCT agencies, while its planning and advisory mission languished.

Ultimately, this rendered the BRWCT vulnerable to the critiques that have been advanced by the Raimondo administration.

If the executive branch has concluded, correctly or not, that the BRWCT isn’t the right approach to addressing the issues and concerns articulated by the 2004 House Bay Trust Study Commission, then it’s appropriate for the General Assembly to consider terminating the BRWCT and trying something new. Unfortunately, trying something new is not what Budget Article 16 proposes.

A major challenge that Rhode Island still must address is integration and coordination of multiple strategic planning institutions concerned with its water resources, such as the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the State Planning Council and most recently the EC4. This challenge also entails better coordination of the development and implementation of other planning processes that manifest at finer geographic scales, or are agency specific, such as CRMC’s special area management plans, DEM’s performance partnership agreement with EPA Region I, DEM’s water quality restoration plans and State Guide Plan elements concerned with water. The value of linking strategic planning implementation and evaluation functions across these planning institutions and processes remains insufficiently appreciated, and agency staffs increasingly struggle to devote the effort and time necessary to maintain simultaneously these institutions.

One may posit that terminating the BRWCT would help to streamline interagency strategic planning, but only if one disregards the fact that the agency’s mission is to coordinate and integrate discrete strategic planning efforts distributed across the executive branch. Inadequate attention to the design and functioning of the state’s governance system for water resources has, among other problems, produced a byzantine system of strategic planning and evaluation for water management and resource development.

While substantial reductions to agency staff and operations have compelled progress in the reform of permitting processes and internal management and administrative functions, stove-piping, duplication and inadequate follow-through continue to hamper Rhode Island’s strategic planning and advisory network for water. In particular, strategic planning dedicated to water remain poorly linked to state budgeting decisions.

The General Assembly clearly had some of these concerns in mind when it created the BRWCT. Developing viable linkages between strategic planning and agency budgeting was an important BRWCT goal. It’s unfortunate that so little progress has been made toward this goal in the 11 years since the BRWCT was created.

Next steps
The BRWCT hasn’t functioned as intended. But the important question before the General Assembly isn’t the tactical one addressed in Budget Article 16 of what else could we do with the BRWCT’s funding? Rather, the most important questions facing the General Assembly are evaluative: Why didn’t the BRWCT function as intended? What governance and institutional values or opportunities will be neglected if it is terminated? If those governance values and opportunities are still important, what alternatives to the BRWCT should be considered? How should existing strategic planning and coordination initiatives dedicated to water and climate-change adaptation function together in helping the General Assembly fulfill its responsibilities?

These comments have addressed some of the reasons why the BRWCT didn’t function as intended. The Bay Trust Study Commission — as well as the SLP and additional documents generated by the BRWCT — articulates the strategic planning, budgeting and governance values and opportunities that the BRWCT was founded to pursue.

After serving as BRWCT chair for two governors, I reluctantly conclude that an interagency planning and coordination institution such as the BRWCT shouldn’t be situated within the governor’s office — nor, of course, within the DEM director’s office. A successor to the BRWCT could instead function as a self-standing executive office led by a civil servant, not a gubernatorial appointee, possibly based within the Department of Administration or the Office of Auditor General. Funding support would continue to be provided by the Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Fund.

This new institution could incorporate much of the mission and functions of the BRWCT. Or it could be tasked primarily with synthesizing and distilling shared water management and resource use priorities — drawn from key State Guide Plan elements and other strategic plans — into multi-year and annual implementation strategies that include detailed descriptions of staffing and operational needs.

Second, it would develop in-depth evaluations of the pursuit of these long- and short-term implementation strategies. Finally, it would be tasked with developing a new component of the state budget that lays out a comprehensive, coordinated funding approach for both annual and long-term funding needs for managing, restoring and conserving Rhode Island’s natural waters and their human uses.

This new institution’s fundamental purpose would be to assist the General Assembly in exercising its constitutional “oversight role regarding the planning, policy development and implementation of protection and restoration measures for” the state’s waters.

Ames Colt, Ph.D., was the chairman of the Rhode Island Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team.