Federal Water Tap, February 16: Mississippi River Basin Grants Itself Two More Decades to Cut Nutrient Pollution

The Rundown

Deadline extension for nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin. More heat means more evaporation from western farmland and reservoirs. Western water supply forecasts coming soon. U.S. official promotes Nepal hydropower.

“It takes time to improve water quality in very large water bodies like the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. And then it takes time for nature to heal.” — Ellen Gilinsky, senior advisor for water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on the decision by a state, federal, and tribal task force to extend by 20 years the deadline for cutting nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

By the Numbers

12.3 percent: Increase in demand for irrigation water in parts of the Rio Grande Basin in the second half of the 21st century, the highest of any western basin (Bureau of Reclamation)

10 percent: Increase in net evaporation from Lake Mead by 2080 because of increasing heat and decreasing precipitation (Bureau of Reclamation)

Reports and Studies

Climate and Irrigation in the West
Some will have it worse than others. By the second half of the century, climate change will increase irrigation demands in parts of the Rio Grande Basin, in the Southwest, by more than 12 percent, but only by 1 percent in the Columbia River Basin, in the Pacific Northwest, according to a Bureau of Reclamation study.

More water will be needed to offset an increase in evaporation and water consumption by plants, a dual-process known as evapotranspiration. In the Southwest, less precipitation adds to the need for supplemental water. The analysis, which looked at eight major watersheds, assumed no change in irrigation practices, crop patterns, or crop varieties, all of which could be altered to reduce future water demand.

Reservoir Evaporation
The Reclamation study noted above also assessed the effect of temperature and precipitation on evaporation from western reservoirs. More evaporation means less water available for farmers, cities, and ecosystems. Again, the Southwest is hardest hit. By 2080, net evaporation from the two biggest Colorado River reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, increases by 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively. By contrast, evaporation from Grand Coulee, in Washington state, is expected to increase by 5 percent.

Contaminated Sites
Two federal land management agencies do not have a complete inventory of contaminated sites, particularly of abandoned mines, in their domain, according to a report from the government’s internal watchdog.

The Government Accountability Office recommends better data to improve the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s management of these sites, as well as closer coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Interior has confirmed contamination at 4,722 sites and has yet to assess conditions at more than 30,000 abandoned mines, the report states.

News Briefs

Dead Zone — Still Too Big
They set the goal in 2001, but members of a nutrient pollution task force acknowledged last week a fact that scientists had been saying for years: that a 60 percent reduction in the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone by this year is not possible. Instead, the task force — comprised of federal, state, and tribal officials — extended the deadline by two decades, to 2035.

The current five-year average size of the dead zone, a low-oxygen area caused by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution as well as loss of wetlands and engineering of rivers, is 14,353 square kilometers (5,541 square miles). The 2015 goal was 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles).

Hydropower in Nepal
Speaking at a Fulbright program workshop in Kathmandu on water, energy, and food, a U.S. State Department official endorsed Nepal’s hydropower goals.

Fatema Z. Sumar, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, said that the United States expanded its financial commitment to the country’s development last December through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid program established in 2004.

“Now is the time to seize the momentum and help Nepal fully realize its hydro potential, which will unleash economic prosperity for its citizens and the entire region,” Sumar said.

Sumar added that using rivers to generate electricity must be done with care.

“As we consider the best strategies to support Nepal’s hydropower development, we must take measured decisions with affected stakeholders that rely on the best available science,” Sumar said. “This includes a focus up front on water basin management and environmental and social impact. Nepal has a real opportunity here to undertake long-term strategic planning to develop its hydro potential in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable.”

Drought Funding
With $US 5 million to spend in 2015 to assist local, state, and tribal drought planning, the Bureau of Reclamation published draft guidelines for allocating the money. Funds will be offered in three areas: writing new drought plans; implementing long-term projects to reduce water use, reduce pollution, or improve reliability; and emergency actions that can be completed within six months. Send comments by March 12 to aomorgan@usbr.gov.

On the Radar

Water Supply Determinations
In coming weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation will issue preliminary water supply forecasts for several canals that serve western farmers. The Central Valley Project (California), the Klamath Project (California and Oregon), and the Yakima Project (Washington) will almost certainly register shortages. Snowpack in the three states is significantly below normal, with only slightly less dismal forecasts for spring and summer streamflow.

Colorado River Value
The National Park Service is proposing a survey to reckon the recreational value of a prime segment of the Colorado River. The survey will be mailed to anglers and boaters who use the 24-kilometer (15-mile) stretch of the river between Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry, the upstream terminus of Grand Canyon National Park.

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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