Federal Water Tap, February 2: Obama Administration Proposes New Flood Standards for Federally Funded Projects

The Rundown

Using federal money to build in floodplains gets tougher. Vermont senator wants $US 1 trillion for infrastructure. Senate amendment to regulate fracking fails. Federal biologists criticize a California dam proposal. Water quality is a concern on the U.S-Canada border. The Senate holds hearings on the Clean Water Act and ballast water regulations.

By the Numbers

63-35: margin by which an amendment to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act was rejected in the Senate.

Reports and Studies

California Dam
Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say that increasing the height of Shasta Dam, one of the tallest in the United States and a key water-supply asset in California, would be harmful to salmon and should not be attempted, according to the San Jose Mercury News citing a report acquired by a Freedom of Information Act request.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of permits under the Endangered Species Act, which would be needed for the $US 1.1 billion project to proceed.

Basin Study
The binational commission that manages waters shared by the United States and Canada recommended a $US 8.4 million study of water quality in the Lake of the Woods Basin, which provides drinking water for 750,000 people in northern Minnesota, Manitoba, and Ontario. Topics of concern include: algae blooms, invasive species, and groundwater contamination from mining.

News Briefs

Safe Drinking Water Act and Fracking
The Senate rejected by a vote of 63-35 an amendment that would have regulated hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, under the Safe Drinking Water Act. New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand proposed the amendment. The injection of chemicals to increase oil and gas production during the fracking process was exempted from regulation by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey published data on water volumes and chemicals used in nearly one million wells that were hydraulically fractured between 1947 and 2010, the latter date being just as the U.S. oil and gas boom took off.

Flood Risk
Federally funded projects along coasts and shorelines and in floodplains will have to meet new standards for flood risk that take into account projections of future climate changes, according to an executive order from President Obama.

New facilities have three options for meeting the standard:

    1) Use the latest climate models to forecast future flood probabilities.
    2) Site the facility two feet above the current 100-year flood level for non-critical buildings, and three feet for critical buildings such as hospitals.
    3) Site the facility according to the 500-year flood level.

Flooding accounts for 85 percent of federal disaster declarations, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The complete standards can be read here. Comments are being accepted and should be sent to FEMA-FFRMS@fema.dhs.gov.

On the Radar

President Obama will unveil his 2015 budget proposal today. The Los Angeles Times reports that the president will seek a tax on corporate profits earned overseas to fund a $US 478 billion program to rebuild highways and bridges. Water infrastructure most likely will not see nearly as much funding.

Meanwhile, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, introduced a bill to spend $US 1 trillion over five years to rebuild old highways, ports, railways, and water pipes.

Senate Hearing WOTUS
The heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers will testify before the Committee on Environment and Public Works on February 4. They will answer questions about the Waters of the United States rule, which defines the streams and wetlands that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Proposed in April 2014, the rule has drawn the ire of agribusiness and Republican representatives for being too broad.

Senate Hearing Ballast Water
The Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on February 4 on federal regulations regarding the discharge of ballast water from cargo ships. Used to steady a ship, ballast water can be a highway for invasive species.

EPA Inspections
The EPA’s internal watchdog will begin an investigation into whether the agency is conducting appropriate inspections at facilities that storage, treat, and dispose of hazardous waste.

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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