Federal Water Tap, December 29: A Preview of the 2015 Regulatory Agenda

The Rundown

Federal agencies release regulatory schedules for 2015. The EPA hands out a record Clean Water Act penalty. A Bureau of Reclamation study looks at tribal water use in the Colorado River Basin. President Obama signs a bill for drinking water and sanitation in poor countries.

“Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services sickens and kills thousands of children every day, and leads to poverty across the globe. But this is no longer simply a global health and development issue – it’s a long-term problem that increasingly threatens our national security.” – Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) on the passage of the Paul Simon Water for the World Act, which President Obama signed into law last week. The act directs the U.S. Agency for International Development to monitor the long-term sustainability of drinking water projects.

By the Numbers

$US 2.3 million: fine levied on XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, for dumping dirt into streams in West Virginia after constructing pads to drill for natural gas (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

News Briefs

Colorado River Basin
An assessment of current and historical water use by tribes in the Colorado River Basin is roughly 75 percent complete, according to Carly Jerla, a Bureau of Reclamation analyst. The assessment, which began in September 2013, is the first phase of a four-part study of tribal water use in the Southwest’s most important watershed. Including studies of supply, demand, and strategies for future water use, the final phase will be completed in early 2016, Jerla told Circle of Blue.

Climate Change
All federal agency actions that involved an environmental review should consider the amount of carbon emissions and the effects of climate change, according to new Obama administration guidance. Earlier guidelines did not apply to plans for land and water resources.

The Obama administration also published new guidance for drafting “programmatic” environmental reviews – the broad assessments that are used to establish policies or to identify areas most suitable for mining or solar energy projects. The administration will allow each agency to determine when a programmatic review is necessary, rather than set a single standard.

Nitrates in California Groundwater
The Bureau of Reclamation will temporarily allow wells with nitrate concentrations above legal limits to pump groundwater into the Friant-Kern canal, a federal canal in California’s Central Valley. The pumping of groundwater into the canal began last year when deliveries of river water through the canal dropped nearly to zero. The exemptions for high-nitrate wells last through February 2016, when the pumping program ends. Wells will be prohibited from pumping if nitrate concentrations in the entire canal exceed certain thresholds. Infants are most at risk from nitrates, which can cause blood disorders or death at high exposure.

On the Radar for 2015

U.S. Supreme Court
The nation’s highest court may reconsider a federal appeals court ruling that upholds restrictions on water exported from California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms in the Central Valley. The restrictions were put in place in 2008 to protect the delta smelt, an endangered fish. Lawyers representing a group of Central Valley farmers petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in October to take up the case.

Waters of the United States
The EPA plans to finalize its clarification of the scope of the Clean Water Act by April 2015. Republicans in Congress have other ideas. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven touts a “two-step process” for blocking the rule. Step one was cutting funds in the recent budget deal for the rule’s implementation. Step two is getting legislation through Congress that will close the door. Stay tuned.

Underground Storage Tanks
The EPA plans to release a final rule in February for improving the safety of the nation’s 575,000 underground tanks, most of which are at gas stations and are used to store petroleum or other hazardous materials. The agency has suggested that new tanks use double walls to prevent groundwater contamination.

Electric Power Plants
The EPA is under a court order to publish final rules for limiting water pollution from electric power plants by September 30, 2015. The rules, which seek to reduce the amount of toxic heavy metals dumped into waterbodies, apply to the nation’s 1,200 nuclear and fossil-fuel power plants.

Water Quality
The EPA will update its water quality standards by May 2015. The revisions deal mostly with administrative procedures – how states define the uses of water bodies and how compliance reviews are conducted.

Forest Fire Restoration
The Eldorado National Forest will prepare an environmental review for restoring 97,000 acres burned in September in the King fire in northern California. New vegetation will be planted on severely burned areas, to reduce erosion in rivers and streams.

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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