House Republicans try again to send more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers, but President Obama says he’ll veto the bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee talks about agriculture and water pollution, while a Seattle Superfund site gets a $US 342 million prescription. Congress passes a water rights settlement in the Colorado River Basin days before new reports are expected on the river’s future. Meanwhile, the EPA prepares regulations for coal ash.
“We are getting so used to running the Rules Committee by writing something at midnight and throwing it at someone and telling the rest of us on our side, ‘We’ve got a brand new bill and it’s an emergency and we’ve got to deal with it right away.’ Nonsense. This is the same bill that’s been around here forever and I do not believe a minute of that. They just thought it would be a great idea at the end of session here in lame duck, ‘Let’s see if we can ram this one through.'” – Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), talking about the drought legislation that California Republicans are attempting push through Congress.
“I would urge you and the EPA as we look at this to have more confidence and more faith in our farmers and our ag community that they want to solve the problem without having another layer of regulation put on top of them.” – Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) speaking to the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service about water pollution from farm fields. The interaction took place at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on voluntary farm measures to protect water resources.
By the Numbers
$US 342 million: Estimated cost of cleaning up Seattle’s Duwamish River, a federal Superfund site (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
$US 250,000: Grand prize for a desalination design competition sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Eight semifinalists have been selected to build small-scale desalination technologies for use in developing countries. Three finalists will be chosen after a competition in April 2015 at a Bureau of Reclamation testing facility in New Mexico. (Bureau of Reclamation)
California Drought Bill
After bipartisan negotiations collapsed, California Republicans are making a last-minute push to get drought legislation through Congress. Rep. David Valadao introduced a bill that would send more water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.
The House will debate the bill on Monday, but it is unlikely to become law. President Obama, arguing that such changes in water policy require more input from state and local officials and the public, said he will veto it.
Seattle’s Duwamish River, a waterway so polluted with PCBs and industrial toxins that residents are warned not to eat the fish, will undergo an extensive surgery to restore the health of the federal Superfund site.
According to the $US 342 million cleanup plan, nearly a million cubic yards of contaminated sediment will be dredged from the river bottom, an increase of 20 percent compared to a draft plan released last year. Public comments that urged more dredging led to the increase.
“We have listened. We’ve been responsive,” EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran told EarthFix.
The cleanup program will take 17 years and remove 90 percent of the contamination, according to the EPA.
Not Measuring Drinking Water Success
The EPA does not collect enough data on its signature loan program for drinking water infrastructure to know if the money improved water quality and public health. That is according to an investigation of the agency’s data collection practices by its internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General.
The inspector general’s report recommends that the EPA enforcement the requirement that states report data for projects completed with money from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the EPA’s budget.
Both chambers of Congress passed a water rights settlement for a tributary of the Colorado River. The settlement grants rights to the Bill Williams River to the Hualapai Tribe, whose reservation is located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The agreement also involves a land and water swap with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and Freeport-McMoRan, a mining giant, which will pay $US 1 million to the tribe for technical studies of how to deliver water to the tribe’s land, according to Mohave Daily News.
Lawyers for the EPA told a federal appeals court panel that it should overturn a district judge’s order that the agency decide whether to regulate phosphorous and nitrogen in the Mississippi River Basin, the Times-Picayune reports. A big flush of nutrients from farm fields, urban lawns, and sewage treatment plants into the Gulf of Mexico creates a fish-killing “dead zone” each summer the size of a small New England state.
On the Radar
Colorado River Reports
Two years ago the Bureau of Reclamation released a landmark study of water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin. A series of reports on solutions for meeting future water needs in the basin will be published this month, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Ken Nowak. Nowak made the comments at a conference in November but did not return a phone message last week to confirm the timetable.
Coal Ash Regulations
The EPA is under a court-ordered December 19 deadline to finalize regulations for disposing of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. Typically stored in slurry ponds, coal ash can contaminate groundwater with mercury and other toxic metals, and devastate rivers and wetlands if the storage ponds fail.
This week marks the last days of the 113th Congress. The House adjourns December 12, while the Senate schedule is still not final.
The public comment period closes December 15 for the Food and Drug Administration’s new rules on the use of irrigation water to ensure food safety. The proposal sets limits on the microbial content of irrigation water and could force farmers to use more groundwater than canal or river water. The rule has been criticized by farm groups and scientists alike for lacking scientific rigor. Comments can be submitted at www.regulations.gov, referencing docket number FDA-2011-N-0921.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton