Federal Water Tap, March 18: Lower Runoff Forecast for Western U.S. Rivers

The numbers dribbled out in a weekly Bureau of Reclamation update. Then they were splashed on a regional map. The conclusion is the same: the Colorado River runoff forecast is dry and getting drier.

In fact, that is the case for most of the states west of the Rocky Mountains. They rely on a deep snowpack and manmade reservoirs to get them through long, dry summers. But February, according to the National Water and Climate Center, was a cruel month. For nearly every river basin, the streamflow forecast declined in March. Same story for reservoirs: every state that reported data is at or below average capacity.

“What fell in the West didn’t really amount to much,” said hydrologist Tom Perkins, talking about February snows. “New Mexico, Utah and Colorado are especially vulnerable, because their reservoirs are at low levels due to sustained drought conditions.”

A New Permit for an Existing Tar Sands Pipeline
A Canadian energy company applied to the U.S. State Department for a permit to double the capacity of an existing pipeline from Canada’s tar sands. Enbridge Energy requests that it be allowed to operate the Alberta Clipper line at its design capacity of 880,000 barrels per day. The line, which ends in northern Wisconsin and began operation in 2010, now carries 450,000 barrels per day.

Meanwhile, the EPA is requiring Enbridge to do more dredging in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, where an Enbridge pipeline burst in 2010 and spilled more than 3.2 million liters (843,000 gallons). Oil still mingles with sediments in the river bed. In addition to dredging, Enbridge must install sediment traps, monitor the river surface for sheens or globs of oil, and submit data on air, water and sediment resources to the EPA.

Sequester Effects
Now more than two weeks old, the effects of the everyone-takes-a-hit budget cuts known as the “sequester” are emerging. The U.S. Geological Survey said it would discontinue up to 375 streamflow gauges. These are part of a national network funded by the Army Corps of Engineers and operated by the USGS. Richard Kane of the USGS told Circle of Blue that the two agencies are discussing which gauges are vital and which are to be sent to the chopping block.

Water Infrastructure Financing Hearing
A crew of representatives from federal and local government and from the private sector told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the nation needs to invest in water infrastructure. The best way to do that is being debated.

One of the witnesses, from the Government Accountability Office, presented an analysis of three financing models: a clean water trust fund, a national infrastructure bank, and public-private partnerships. All three have their supporters and all three have key challenges, respectively: administration, project eligibility and priority, and contracting.

Play It Again, Jim
He said it before, and he repeated it last week. In his annual national security briefing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper once again told a select Senate committee that water, energy, and food crises abroad deserve attention from the U.S. government.

Clean Water Act in Court
The Environmental Protection Agency appeared in a federal appeals court on Thursday to defend its decision to retroactively revoke mining permit it approved. Greenwire reports that the case could help define the limits of the Clean Water Act and that leaders of other regulated industries are concerned about the precedent. A U.S. district judge ruled against the EPA last year.

New Mexico Public Meetings
The Bureau of Reclamation will hold five public meetings in New Mexico in April to discuss the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water Supply Project, which will convey, treat and store water for residents in the basin, north of Santa Fe.

The meetings will follow a historic water rights agreement for the basin, signed last week by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and state and pueblo officials, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports.

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.

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