Federal Water Tap, April 6: Leasing Water and Land for Colorado River Basin Restoration

The Rundown

The Bureau of Reclamation negotiates a land and water lease in Arizona while endorsing water transfer options in California. NASA sees little water in a Sierra Nevada watershed. Tennessee gains control of its underground wastewater disposal program. Streams in the Pacific Northwest are under the microscope. California congressman introduces a pair of drought bills. Water wonks gather in the nation’s capital while a Senate subcommittee chair heads to Alaska.

“A mountain’s snowpack is like a giant TV screen, where each pixel in the image varies but blends together with the others to make up a picture. For the past century, we’ve estimated mountain snowpack by looking at just a few pixels of the screen — that is, a few sparse ground measurements in each watershed basin. During an intense drought like this one, most of the pixels on the screen are blank — that is, they’re snow-free. NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory is able to measure the snowpack in every pixel of the screen that still has snow, and put together a complete picture of how little actual snow there is.” — Tom Painter of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory talking about aerial monitoring of California’s snowpack.

By the Numbers

40 percent: Decrease in water stored in 2015 in the snowpack of the Tuolumne River Basin, California’s most accurately measured mountain watershed thanks to a host of sensors packed into an airplane laboratory (NASA)
5,549 acre-feet: Amount of water per year to be leased from a mining company in Arizona to be used for river restoration (Bureau of Reclamation)

Reports and Studies

Pacific Northwest Water Study
The U.S. Geological Survey will begin three months of data collection this month in the lowlands of western Oregon and Washington for a study of stream health. The study, similar to analyses completed in the Southeast and Midwest, will assess stream pollution, sediment contamination, and fish species in the Puget Sound and Willamette Valley watersheds, home to Seattle and Portland, the region’s urban hubs.

Water Transfers in California
A full suite of options for moving water from buyers to sellers is recommended in a final Bureau of Reclamation review of water transfers in California that use state and federal canals and pumps. Fallowing farmland, selling of conserved supplies, and pumping groundwater while selling the surface water rights are among the strategies Reclamation endorsed.

News Briefs

Lower Colorado River Restoration
To create living space for birds and fish in the Colorado River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation is pursuing the lease of thousands of acres of land and water along Arizona’s Bill Williams River from Freeport, a mining giant.

An environmental review proposes that the federal government acquire 3,418 acres of land and 5,549 acre-feet of water per year in the river’s riparian corridor. The natural assets will be used to cultivate a riparian habitat of cottonwoods, marshes, and slow moving backwaters.

Underground Injection of Wastewater
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted the state of Tennessee the authority to manage and enforce the underground injection of hazardous wastes, a designated known as primacy. In giving authority to manage five of the six classes of waste, the EPA determined that Tennessee’s regulations are as strict as federal rules. According to the EPA, some 33 states have primacy for the Underground Injection Control program, which is designed to protect underground sources of drinking water.

Drought Bill
The EPA, under a bill submitted by Rep. Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat, would be required to evaluate the effect of drought on the quality of water used by public drinking water systems.

McNerney also introduced a bill that would expand federal financing options for water projects in states in which a drought emergency has been declared.

On the Radar

Washington Water Week
Water policy wonks will muster in the nation’s capital next week for seven days of congressional briefings, roundtables, and breakfast keynotes as part of Water Week 2015, a lobbying event for the water sector that runs April 12 to 18.

Waters of the United States Rule
The chairman of a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee is traveling to his home state to discuss an EPA proposal for defining the scope of the Clean Water Act. On April 6, Republican Dan Sullivan will meet with local representatives in Anchorage, Alaska. Two days later, a second meeting will convene in Fairbanks.

In the House, meanwhile, the chairmen of three committees requested in a letter that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy respond to questions about the development of the rule. By April 10, the committee heads want information on the EPA’s discussions with regional offices, state regulators, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which also has Clean Water Act regulatory authority.

Desal Prize
An international competition to develop a cheap, reliable way to make salty water pure enough to grow crops will be on display this week at a federal research center in New Mexico. Five finalists in the Desal Prize will demonstrate their contraptions at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Center with the winner receiving $US 125,000 and a chance to earn federal grants to scale up the project.

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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