The Clean Water Act legal saga continues. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a drought hearing. The Army Corps of Engineers publishes a list of deauthorized water projects while the Justice Department decides to fight a flood liability lawsuit in New Orleans on behalf of the corps. The Obama administration will take the value of nature into consideration in federal decisions. The Bureau of Reclamation deals a blow to a proposed groundwater pumping project in California. An Ohio senator proposes sewer system funding.
“We need to do more to address water quality at its source, by preventing the toxic runoff that causes the algal blooms. But we also need to help the communities across Ohio that are struggling to afford expensive — but vital — renovations to outdated sewer systems. Too often, systems go without updates and repairs, and result in water contamination, like we have seen in Lake Erie.” — Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), speaking about a water infrastructure bill that he will soon introduce. The bill will provide $US 1.8 billion over five years to upgrade sewer systems.
By the Numbers
$US 1.5 billion: Cost of sewer and drinking water treatment upgrades that the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority will make under a federal consent decree for Clean Water Act violations. The U.S. government did not levy a fine on the sewer authority because of “financial hardship” and a “documented inability to pay.” (Department of Justice)
$US 14.3 billion: Price tag of 147 water infrastructure projects that were approved by Congress but will not be funded. The Army Corps of Engineers was required by a 2014 law to find $US 18 billion worth of projects to deauthorize. The corps was not able to identify enough projects to meet Congress’s dollar goal. (U.S. Army Corps)
3.2 million: Pages of documents filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in a river dispute between Florida and Georgia. (Lakeside News)
24 percent: Decline in the U.S. Forest Service budget between 2001 and 2015 for vegetation and watershed management. (Testimony of Tom Tidwell, U.S. Forest Service chief)
Reports and Studies
Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development have an uneven track record of data reporting and monitoring, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. The GAO surveyed programs in nine countries that received 53 percent of agency funding for WASH programs in 2012 and 2013.
Central Valley Project Water Storage
The Central Valley Project, a large federal irrigation project in California, is beginning the 2016 water year with 6 percent (200,000 acre-feet) less water in reservoir storage than last year, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. The water year begins on October 1. Considering California just experienced its lowest snowpack and hottest water year on record, a drop of only 6 percent is remarkable.
Clean Water Rule on Hold
In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit temporarily halted the Obama administration’s rule that defines the scope of the Clean Water Act, Reuters reports. Judges David McKeague and Richard Griffin, both George W. Bush appointees, argued that the 18 states suing to invalidate the rule have enough chance of success in their lawsuit that federal action to implement it should be suspended. Judge Damon Keith, the dissenter, was appointed by Jimmy Carter.
Drought Legislation Hearing
California lawmakers, farm representatives, water managers, and academics testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a two-hour hearing on drought legislation.
Action is necessary, that they all agreed on. The direction, however, is still being debated.
“This is something that must be addressed. This is not just about what we’re seeing in California. This is a west-wide drought,” Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said, then added later: “These are very complicated and complex issues, and we need to reach a unified legislative response.”
A group of 27 representatives of western states sent a letter to Murkowski that opposed the House drought legislation, saying it undermined the Endangered Species Act.
Obama Administration Promotes Ecosystem Services
Federal agencies must take the value of nature into account in their planning, investments, and regulations, according to an Obama administration memo.
The memo refers to “ecosystem services,” which are the benefits provided by nature — such as the water cleansing functions of wetlands — that are not traded in markets and do not have a price attributed to them. They are often undervalued in traditional cost-benefit analyses that underpin federal and private sector decisions.
The Obama directive orders each agency to develop a policy for evaluating ecosystem services. The White House Council on Environmental Quality will write guidelines for agencies to follow, but that document is not expected until November 2016. Turning the ideas into policy-making reality will take many years, according to the memo.
Delta Tunnels Proposal Criticized
Rep. Jay McNerney (D-CA) called Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build a pair of tunnels to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta an expensive project that will not address California’s water problems.
“The only thing clear is that the tunnels are a repackaging of old ideas that waste billions of dollars and threaten the way of life for an entire region without creating a single new drop of water,” McNerney said while speaking in Stockton, California, on October 5.
The University of California, Berkeley, was selected to lead the U.S. half of a $US 50 million water-energy research partnership with China. The partnership was announced in November 2014. Research will focus on technologies that reduce water consumption for electricity generation, hydropower design, and data collection.
Hurdle Raised for California Groundwater Plan
The Bureau of Reclamation determined that a company hoping to export groundwater from a basin in California’s Mojave Desert must acquire a new right of way, setting up a new hurdle for Cadiz, Inc, the Los Angeles Times reports. The company had hoped to use an existing railroad right of way and thus avoid a new environmental review.
Ballast Water Rewrite
A federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on discharging the water used by ships for balance are too soft, Reuters reports. Ballast water is a conduit for invasive species and water pollutants.
On the Radar
New Orleans Flood Appeal
The Justice Department will fight a federal judge’s ruling that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is liable for flood damages caused by a shipping channel it built through New Orleans, NOLA.com reports. The lawsuit contends that the flood damage from Hurricane Katrina and other storms amounted to a Fifth Amendment “temporary taking” of property.
Watershed Restoration in California
The Army Corps of Engineers will begin an environmental review of a proposed stream and wetland restoration project in the Yuba River watershed of northern California. Comments on the scope of the review should be sent by November 9 to Michael.R.Fong@usace.army.mil.
Marine Sanctuary, Potomac
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is preparing an environmental review of a national marine sanctuary proposed for a tidal bay in the Potomac River. Mallows Bay is 40 miles south of Washington, D.C. Submit comments by January 15 via this link.
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