Federal Water Tap, April 3: Congress Begins Pushback Against Trump Rural Water Cuts

The Rundown

House members will send a letter this week to colleagues asking not to eliminate rural water funding. Trump signs executive order to undo federal climate change action. Representatives introduce bills in Congress on water affordability, infrastructure investment, and Indian water rights. Membership in the bipartisan House climate caucus grows to nearly three dozen. The House passes a bill that handcuffs the EPA’s use of science in decision-making. Federal agencies announce meetings on drought and environmental justice. And lastly, the U.S. Geological Survey will publish this week the first national assessment of brackish groundwater in more than half a century.

“A failure to properly fund these programs will cause irreparable and long lasting harm to these water systems and the Americans who rely on them.” — Excerpt from a bipartisan letter written by House members who oppose the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate a $US 498 million grant program for rural water systems.

By the Numbers

$US 7.6 billion: Amount of financing provided to water utilities in fiscal year 2016 from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the main federal loan program for sewer and stormwater systems. The fund’s annual report indicates 1,362 loans were made. The average interest rate for those loans was 1.6 percent compared to an average market rate of 3.5 percent. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

34: Members of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of House Republicans and Democrats exploring “economically viable” actions to address climate change. (Rep. Carlos Curbelo)

News Briefs

House Members Support Rural Water Funding
This week, House Democrats and Republicans will send a letter in opposition to President Trump’s rural water cuts to the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, which controls the program’s budget. In March, the president proposed eliminating the $US 498 million program that provides grants and loans to small communities for water system upgrades.

The effort to speak out against the cuts is being led by the bipartisan team of Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) and Rep. John Katko (R-NY).

“With all Americans having a need for clean and safe water and sanitary sewage systems, this program is key to strong healthy communities in Hawaii,” Hanabusa told Circle of Blue in an email. The letter is open for signatures through April 5.

Trump Energy Policy
Obama administration actions on climate change have “already kind of run their course” and “simply don’t reflect the president’s priorities,” a senior administration official said at a briefing the day before President Trump signed an executive order that attempts to undo his predecessor’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution from the energy sector.

“When it comes to dealing with climate change, we want to take our own course and do it in our own form and fashion,” the unnamed official said.

In practice, and just as for water, that means doing very little at all. Despite Trump’s claim while signing the order that he wants the EPA to focus on clean water and clean air, his actions so far while in office — a proposed 31 percent cut to the agency’s budget, invalidating a rule to protect streams from coal waste, and attempting to reduce the reach of the Clean Water Act — do the opposite.

Speaking of EPA Funding…
The Trump administration would cut one out of four EPA staff jobs, according to a budget document obtained by the Washington Post that provides more detail on the president’s plan for the agency. Consequential programs would be cut: grants to reduce farm runoff, regional programs to clean up the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, and Chesapeake Bay, and an assistance to prevent leaking gasoline tanks from polluting groundwater.

Supreme Court Hears Clean Water Rule Jurisdiction
Lawyers for the U.S. government argued before the Supreme Court on March 31 that the justices should indefinitely delay review of a lawsuit over the scope of the Clean Water Act. The Supreme Court is charged with determining which federal court should hear the lawsuit over the Clean Water Rule, which is opposed by dozens of states and farm and business lobbies.

Government lawyers claimed that because the Trump administration wants to revise or revoke the Clean Water Rule, determining which court should hear a case pertaining to the existing rule is a waste of time. Groups defending the rule argue that an indefinite delay while the current administration figures out what to do is a way to invalidate the rule without going through proper legal channels, according to the National Law Journal.

House Targets EPA Science
The House passed, by a largely party-line vote of 228 to 194, a bill designed to handcuff the EPA’s use of science in decision-making. The HONEST Act, sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-TX), the climate change denying chairman of the House Science Committee, requires the agency to use only publicly available data to support regulatory actions. It also requires that the data be “reproducible.”

Critics point out that a good number of health studies use confidential data. In addition, longitudinal studies that take place over many years or decades to assess chronic ailments would be off-limits because they cannot easily be reproduced, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.

The HONEST Act is similar to bills that Smith introduced in two previous sessions that did not become law.

Water Bills Pile Up
Representatives have been busy. Key water bills introduced in March include:

  • Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) reintroduced the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Act, which establishes a trust fund for water infrastructure by taxing corporate profits earned abroad. The bill includes grants for replacing lead service lines and repairing septic systems. The bill, which did not pass in the last session of Congress, has 23 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a bill to settle water rights claims for the Navajo Nation in Utah. The bill grants the tribe the right to deplete up to 81,500 acre-feet per year from the Upper Colorado River Basin, and it authorizes $US 198 million to construct water projects to supply the reservation.
  • Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) introduced the Drinking Water Affordability Act, which extends the payback period from 30 years to 40 years for poor communities that receive low-interest loans through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The schedule for interest payments would also change, kicking in 18 months after project completion.
  • Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) reintroduced the Made in America Water Infrastructure Act, which would require American-made iron and steel be used for projects financed by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The bill passed the Senate last year but was scrapped by the House. A similar bill is now circulating in the House where it has 19 co-sponsors, all Democrats save one.

Cold War Pollution Legacy
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) wants the military to clean up Cold War-era groundwater contamination in Wyoming. There are seven sites near Cheyenne, the capital, polluted with TCE, a carcinogen that was used to scrub rocket fuel tanks and engines.

“The Department of Defense, though, has an obligation to leave states like Wyoming whole,” Barrasso said at a March 29 Senate hearing on the U.S. military’s legacy of environmental pollution. “To not only provide for our nation’s safety, but also to restore the environment of our communities.”

The Defense Department estimated a cleanup cost in 2015 of $US 285 million for Wyoming military sites. Other witnesses at the hearing discussed pollution problems in Alaska and Washington state.

NASA Image Library
NASA posted online a library of more than 140,000 images, videos, and audio files. A sweet example: this 1995 photo of the Space Shuttle Atlantis above the Aral Sea.

Studies and Reports

Brackish Groundwater Assessment To Be Released Soon
The first national assessment of slightly salty groundwater in more than a half century will be published this week, according to the U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist leading the study. It was slated for publication last September but the editing and review process took longer than expected, Jennifer Stanton told Circle of Blue.

Congress requested the study in 2009. It takes advantage of new analytical tools to outline broadly the location, depth, and chemical characteristics of brackish groundwater. Stanton calls it a “starting point” for more detailed local investigations. Because of drought and diminishing freshwater supplies, brackish groundwater has drawn keen interest in recent years, especially in California, Florida, and Texas.

Protecting the Bees
Neonicotinoids, a pesticide applied to seeds, kill bees. That’s bad for several reasons, not the least of which is the role bees play in pollinating food and flowers. How to prevent this?

A U.S. Geological Survey study found that farm fields that incorporated native prairie grasses into their row crops significantly reduced neonicotinoid concentrations in groundwater, in plant foliage, and in surface runoff two to three years after not using coated seeds.

On the Radar

WIFIA Deadline Approaches
The deadline for submitting letters of interest for the federal government’s newest water infrastructure loan program is April 10. WIFIA is open to public utilities as well as private sector companies that partner with a public agency.

Drought Meeting
The National Integrated Drought Information System, which coordinates federal drought forecasting and research, will hold a public meeting in Washington, D.C., on April 20. At the meeting NIDIS leadership and partners will discuss 2017 goals and quantifying the effects of drought. Register here.

Arizona Mine Expansion
The U.S. Forest Service will review the proposed expansion of the Pinto Valley Mine, an open-pit copper and molybdenum operation in central Arizona. The expansion will encroach on 245 acres of Tonto National Forest. The comment period for the scope of the review runs through April 27.

EPA Environmental Justice Advisory Council Public Meeting
The board will meet from April 25 to April 27 in Minneapolis. There will be a teleconference line for those not able to attend in person. Register for the teleconference here.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.