Federal Water Tap, June 1: EPA Offers Many Exemptions in Clean Water Act Rule

The Rundown

The EPA made two big regulatory announcements: on the Clean Water Act and biofuels. The EPA also authorized a record loan for wastewater treatment and approved a green infrastructure deal for Washington. Meanwhile, the EPA’s internal watchdog outlined the agency’s management challenges. An environmental review for a California desalination plant will soon begin. And, a Senate hearing this week will discuss drought response.

“We established clear boundaries here. That we have never done before.” — EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy talking about the new EPA rule that defines which water bodies will require a Clean Water Act pollution permit.

By the Numbers

9 percent: Increase in the use of biofuels in the United States between 2014 and 2016, as required in new federal standards. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
$US 1.6 billion: Federal loan, the largest ever approved under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s clean water revolving loan fund, to upgrade a Sacramento wastewater treatment plant. New technology will remove nearly all ammonia from the discharged water, to meet pollution standards. (EPA)

Reports and Studies

EPA Management Challenges
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to improve its oversight of state monitoring and enforcement programs, according to an evaluation by the agency’s internal watchdog. Most federal environmental laws — including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act — are implemented by state agencies and overseen by the EPA. But much neglect occurs, the report states. In just the last year, the Office of the Inspector General identified a number of agency missteps:

  • Failure to oversee sewage facility programs for pretreatment of sewage
  • Failure to ensure that state data on the use of revolving loan funds for drinking water and wastewater are logged in the agency’s database, which is a loan requirement
  • Widespread neglect by the U.S. Virgin Islands to adequately fulfill the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water, and other statues
  • Failure by EPA Region 8 to inspect pesticide facilities

News Briefs

Clean Water Act Rule Offers Many Exemptions
Beloved by environmental groups and despised by congressional Republicans, the Waters of the United States rule was released by the EPA. After years of confusion thanks to two opaque U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the EPA sought to clarify which bodies of water are regulated under the Clean Water Act.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was adamant that the rule will improve and quicken the permitting process. The rule, for the first time, extensively defines which waters do not need to be reviewed. A lot is exempt. Existing exclusions for agriculture, such as tile drainage — which is at the heart of a lawsuit in Iowa — were maintained.

Artificial ponds, such as coal waste dumps and on-farm reservoirs, are not included. Ephemeral streams, playas, and rills that flow during only part of the year are not covered. Water bodies in a 100-year flood plain are protected, but only if they are within 1,500 feet of the channel. “We narrowed the definition of tributaries,” McCarthy said, noting the farm lobby drumbeat about ditches. Ditches do not need a permit.

Renewable Fuels Standard
The EPA will require increasing amounts of biofuels to be blended into gasoline but at a slower rate than previous targets, which anticipated much faster growth in renewable fuel consumption.

The EPA, in revising downward the renewable fuel standards, is following the spirit of the 2005 law passed by Congress to boost plant-based fuels, but not the letter. According to the agency, Congress wanted high goals even though market demand did not yet exist.

“The proposed volumes are less than the statutory targets for 2015 and 2016 but higher than what the market would produce and use in the absence of such market-driving standards,” the notice of rule-making states. “The 2015 and 2016 standards are expected to spur further progress in overcoming current constraints and lead to continued growth in the production and use of higher ethanol blends and other qualifying renewable fuels.”

The revised 2016 target of 17.4 billion gallons is 22 percent lower than the target established in 2010, of 22.25 billion gallons.

The renewable fuels standard was a boon to corn-growers, helping to boost demand for one of the primary ingredients in U.S. ethanol production. But the mandate also stressed water supplies. States in the southern Great Plains that responded to the increased demand for corn — such as Kansas and Texas — are also reliant on finite groundwater supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer.

More Green Infrastructure for the Nation’s Capital
The Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement with the Washington, D.C. water utility that allows the city to use more soil and vegetation — known as green infrastructure — to reduce polluted sewer overflows in two watersheds.

The agreement revises a federal consent decree signed in 2005. It will allow the city to reduce the size of or even eliminate some heavy-duty hardware: huge tunnels, for instance, that will hold excess sewage in the Rock Creek and Potomac basins until treatment plants have the capacity to strip the water of contaminants. The green infrastructure will absorb rainfall, which contributes to sewer overflows in Washington’s plumbing system that combines storm drains and sewer lines. The amended consent decree can be found here.

On the Radar

Senate Drought Hearing
On June 2, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear what western states and individuals are doing to respond to drought. A list of witness was not available on Sunday.

California Desalination
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will begin studying the environmental effects of a desalination plant proposed for Monterey County, California. The seawater intake pipes will pierce the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a protected zone. A computer data center will also be located on the 110-acre site. The desalination plant will have the capacity to produce 25,000 acre-feet of water per year. Comments on the issues that the study should address are due July 1.

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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