Federal Water Tap, March 16: U.S. Spy Agencies Take Global Trends Analysis to South by Southwest Conference

The Rundown

Gleaning global trends from the trendy. Yucca Mountain proposal needs more analysis – groundwater this time. National Science Foundation opens wallet for water, food, energy. President Obama appoints new White House environmental adviser. Groundwater rule grounded by U.S. Forest Service. Federal water management agencies talk shop in D.C.

“The global fresh water supply is finite and present consumptive use of water for food, industry, sanitation, and power generation is not sustainable. Water use among riparian states will increasingly be contentious without political action to develop equitable means to share and distribute water.” — the five-year outlook for water, from the Global Trends 2035 overview prepared by the National Intelligence Council

By the Numbers

$US 75 million: proposed fiscal year 2016 budget for the National Science Foundation’s new research focus on water, food, and energy (National Science Foundation)
$US 570 million: cost of deferred maintenance for 16 Bureau of Indian Affairs irrigation projects on tribal land (U.S. Government Accountability Office)

Reports and Studies

Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Pollution
The Eastern Shore, the rural peninsula shared by Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, contributes an outsized share of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A farming center, the Eastern Shore receives twice as much nitrogen and phosphorus per acre as the rest of the watershed, the report states. Fertilizers, manure, and crops contribute 90 percent of the Eastern Shore’s nutrient load to the bay, the nation’s largest estuary, which has struggled for decades with algal blooms, dead zones, and declining oyster and blue crab habitat.

Yakima Basin Water Supply
Certain irrigators in Washington state’s Yakima River basin may have their water supply cut this summer because of low snowpack in the Cascade Mountains, according to a Bureau of Reclamation forecast. Junior water rights holders, those first to get cut off in a shortage, may have only 73 percent of a full supply available. The bureau will make final water allocation decisions in late spring.

News Briefs

Global Trends at SXSW
In December 2016, the newly elected U.S. president will receive Global Trends 2035, an unclassified report from the nation’s spy agencies that outlines important forces shaping world politics in the next two decades. The National Intelligence Council took the discussion of the report to South by Southwest, the annual music and technology jamboree in Austin, Texas.

The overview briefing notes that current water use is unsustainable and will lead to humanitarian crises and political instability. Vulnerability to disease is likely to increase in Africa and parts of Asia due to poor sanitation. The appearance at South by Southwest was to gather public input on the questions, assumptions, and ideas that should influence the final report.

Yucca Mountain, Always and Forever
Federal regulators will hold the magnifying lens once again to Yucca Mountain, the site in the Nevada desert proposed more than three decades ago as an underground nuclear waste dump. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will study the site’s effect on groundwater. Earlier environmental reviews addressed the potential for groundwater contamination, but the NRC asserts that the analysis submitted in 2008 was not rigorous enough.

The new groundwater assessment will examine the properties of the aquifer beneath the site, how water flows through the aquifer, the potential for radiological contamination, and where groundwater comes to the surface in the form of springs. The NRC expects the draft groundwater assessment by the end of the summer, and it will hold public meetings in Nevada and at its Rockville, Maryland headquarters.

Forest Service Suspends Work on Groundwater Rule
An attempt to change the rules for managing groundwater on U.S. Forest Service land is being reexamined, according to the agency’s director. The directive, which was opposed by states in the U.S. West, outlined new procedures for measuring withdrawals, approving new groundwater uses, and manage rivers, streams, and groundwater as one system.

“Where we are today is we’ve stopped,” said Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, in testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, according to E&E News. “We’re going to go back, and we’re going to sit down with — primarily with the states, the state water engineers — to really sit down with them and get their ideas about how we can do this, and ideally how we can do it together.”

Western governors argued that the Forest Service did not consult with them while developing the directive and that the proposal interfered with state authority over groundwater resources.

Some congressional representatives want the Forest Service to cancel the directive altogether. Five leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee, all Republicans from western states, sent Tidwell a letter on March 12 asserting that the agency “failed to justify the need for this new policy” and asking for it to be permanently withdrawn.

Obama Names Environmental Adviser
A former National Park Service official will be President Obama’s top environmental adviser, the Hill reports. Christy Goldfuss, who has a background in public lands conservation, will be the director of the Council on Environmental Quality.

On the Radar

Western Water Meeting
Top officials at federal agencies responsible for water management in the western United States will meet in Washington, D.C. on March 17 to discuss a host of issues. Thirteen federal agencies are members of WestFAST, a forum for collaborating on water issues both within the federal government and with the 17 western states. The agenda items for this annual meeting include: drought response, regulatory cooperation, and collecting and sharing water data, according to Pat Lambert, the liaison between WestFAST and the Western States Water Council, an advisory group.

Drinking Water Needs
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin collecting data on the money needed to maintain the nation’s drinking water systems over the next two decades. The drinking water needs survey is conducted every four years. The results are used for allocating a pot of federal money to the states for subsidized water-infrastructure loans. A detailed explanation of the data methods can be found here. Meanwhile, the survey for sewer needs is at least two years late in being reported to Congress.

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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