Internal memos reveal dissent within Army Corps over the Clean Water Act rule. California senators introduce a drought bill. Texas natural gas looks for escape routes. Another oil pipeline might cross the Canada-U.S. border. Groundwater levels in the Klamath River Basin are declining. The Bureau of Reclamation submits its analysis of raising the height of Shasta Dam. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative reports on its first five years. Reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund moves forward.
“The rule’s contradictions with legal principles generate multiple legal and technical consequences that, in the view of the Corps, would be fatal to the rule in its current form.” — an April 27, 2015, memo from Major General John Peabody, the deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressing concerns about the draft final rule that establishes which waterways in the United States are subjected to the Clean Water Act.
By the Numbers
20 ft to 25 ft: Median decline in groundwater levels in the Klamath River Basin between 2000 and 2014, due to an increase in pumping to offset loss of surface water. (U.S. Geological Survey)
2,500: Projects funded in the first five years of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program to clean up the world’s largest source of fresh surface water. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
Reports and Studies
Raising Shasta Dam
The Bureau of Reclamation, in a final feasibility report, selected its preferred option for increasing the height, and thus the water storage, for Shasta Dam, California’s largest. The additional storage would provide more space for cold water in the reservoir. The cold water would be used to help endangered salmon, which, as is happening this summer, die in warm rivers.
The dam’s height would rise 18.5 feet under the preferred option and store an additional 634,000 acre-feet of water — an increase of 14 percent — at a construction cost of $US 1.3 billion. The agency says that it cannot make a full-fledged recommendation, however, because several matters are still unresolved: namely, who pays and how much. After that, Congress must authorize and allocate funding. Design and permitting will take at least five years, according to the report. Construction will take another five years. It will be a long process to raise the dam.
Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Report
The multi-agency partnership tasked with cleaning up the Great Lakes submitted to Congress a report on the initiative’s first five years. The agencies focused on removing toxic substances from industrial sites on Lake Erie and Lake Michigan; halting the spread of invasive species; reducing nutrient pollution from farms; and restoring wildlife habitat.
California Drought Bill, Senate Version
California’s Democratic senators introduced a $US 1.3 billion drought bill, a broader proposal than current congressional offerings and one with provisions to entice both parties. The bill dances the line between upholding environmental statutes and pulling more water out of rivers and into canals. The bill includes small amounts of money for fish and wildlife management ($US 4 million, for example, to build spawning habitat) and rural communities (a new $US 15 million grant program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture). The bill also tosses money at all sorts of long-term fixes:
- $US 50 million for desalination design and feasibility studies
- $US 600 million for dams and reservoirs
- $US 200 million for water recycling and reuse
- $US 200 million in loan guarantees for local water projects
The bill, however, focuses on California. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair, said in June that any drought bill would have to address the entire American West.
Senate Energy Bill Passes Committee
A wide-ranging, bipartisan energy bill that addresses a few water-related topics passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by a vote of 18-4. The Energy Policy Modernization Act will make the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from offshore oil and gas production to protect the nation’s water and wetlands, a permanent program. The fund is set to expire on September 30.
The bill establishes a joint water-energy sustainability office between the Energy Department and Interior Department. The office will outline federal research priorities and coordinate federal water-energy planning. The bill also includes $US 15 million for local projects that decrease the energy used for water and wastewater operations.
Hydropower is also mentioned. The bill redefines renewable energy to include all hydropower, not just the new capacity added to existing dams.
Army Corps v. EPA
Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers, in a series of memos, expressed concerns in April and May that the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule to clarify the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act had “serious flaws.” The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released the documents as it investigates the dissent that bubbled up in the development of the rule, which was published in late May.
In a memo dated April 24, 2015, Lance Wood, assistant chief counsel for environmental law and regulatory programs at the Army Corps, contended that the EPA decisions about which water bodies are protected under the Clean Water Act are “arbitrary” with “no basis in science or law.” Imprecise definitions make the rule vulnerable to legal challenges, Wood argued.
Strong Statement on Climate
“We will not back down. We will finalize a stronger rule. We’ll veto ideological riders to stop this plan or undercut our bedrock environmental laws. And we’ll move forward on behalf of the American people with the vision set forward by the president.” — Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, speaking about the president’s climate change goals.
Businesses Pledge Water and Climate Targets
Thirteen of the largest businesses in the United States pledged to cut water use, energy use, and meet other efficiency standards as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to respond to climate change.
General Motors, for example, pledged to cut the amount of water used per dollar of output by 15 percent by 2020, compared with 2010.
On the Radar
Another Oil Pipeline
The U.S. State Department will evaluate another transnational oil pipeline. Unlike the in-limbo Keystone XL pipeline, however, the Upland Pipeline will move oil northward — some 300,000 barrels per day from North Dakota to Saskatchewan. Upland is a subsidiary of TransCanada, the Canadian company behind Keystone XL. State Department officials are beginning an environmental review of the conduit. Public comments on the scope of the review are being accepted through August 31.
Yet Another Pipeline
Natural gas in Texas is looking for outlets. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is beginning an environmental review of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which will have the capacity to move 1.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from Presidio County, Texas, to Chihuahua, a state in northern Mexico. The pipeline will tunnel beneath the Rio Grande. Public comments on the scope of the review are being accepted through August 24
Even More Pipelines
FERC is also taking a look at the environmental effects of another Texas proposal: the Rio Grande LNG Project. LNG means liquefied natural gas, which is the easiest way to ship gas in a tanker. The project includes two 140-mile natural gas pipelines from Kleberg County to Cameron County, on the Gulf coast, with a combined capacity of 4.5 billion cubic feet per day, as well as an export terminal and a 600-megawatt power station. It is a large project. Comments are being accepted through August 24.
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