Federal Water Tap, May 27: Senate Passes Water Infrastructure, Drought Bills
Both sides of Congress passed a $US 12 billion water infrastructure package last week.
The 532-page Water Resources Reform and Development Act is a doozy. It hands out money, defines policies, and orders new studies. The highlights:
- Project planning assessments, called feasibility studies, will be capped at three years and $US 3 million dollars, codifying Army Corps guidance issued in 2012. Exceptions for complex studies are possible.
- The corps will prepare a report on how drought affects the reservoirs it operates.
- The corps is prohibited from charging a fee for “surplus” water in the upper Missouri River Basin. North Dakota and South Dakota objected to earlier plans to charge for water supplies the corps did not need.
- Congress urges states that share rivers to sign water compacts. This non-binding request is directed at Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, which have struggled for decades over water releases from corps dams.
- The corps will close the Upper St. Anthony’s Falls lock on the Mississippi River in Minnesota within a year. The closure will help prevent carp from getting a fin-hold in the state.
- The National Academy of Sciences will prepare a study on reducing risk from extreme weather.
- The Government Accountability Office, a watchdog, will review corps policies on floods, storms, and droughts.
- The bill authorizes final feasibility studies for 34 harbor, coastal restoration, and navigation projects, the largest of which are in Gulf Coast states. The most expensive project is a $US 10 billion levee-and-lock system in southern Louisiana called Morganza to the Gulf, which will reduce flood risk.
California Drought Bill
Hours before leaving town for the holiday weekend, the Senate passed legislation aimed at getting more water to farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley and storing more water in Colorado River reservoirs. The bill must now be reconciled with legislation that passed the House in February and garnered a veto warning from President Obama.
Sponsored by Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat whose state is in the throes of its worst ever drought, the bill includes a number of changes to the operation of federal water supply projects, such as keeping open as much as possible diversion gates in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.
The bill quickens the approval process for water transfers and for temporary dams in the delta. For environmental reviews, it orders federal agencies to work with the White House to find “alternative arrangements” – undefined by the bill – to comply with federal law and move water more quickly.
The bill also urges that water for wildlife refuges in the Central Valley be obtained from conservation or groundwater wells and that a portion of those savings be transferred to farmers.
These provisions expire when Governor Jerry Brown lifts the state’s drought emergency declaration.
Two items, both of which involving the Colorado River Basin, do not expire. One is the federal funding to increase water volumes in the basin’s reservoirs. Most likely this will take the form of payments to farmers for conservation or land fallowing.
The second is a National Academy of Sciences study on the water-saving effects of removing salt cedar from river banks. Kill the plant and it no longer uses water.
EPA Water Rule
The House Small Business Committee will hold a hearing on May 29 to discuss the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rule that defines which water bodies are subject to federal regulation.
Then on June 19 the EPA’s science advisory board will hold a public teleconference to talk about its review of the rule. To sign up, email email@example.com.
Clean Water Act Violations
Chevron, an oil major, will pay a $US 875,000 fine for a crude oil spill in 2010 and a diesel fuel spill in 2013, both in Utah.
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.
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
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