Federal Water Tap, May 25: Tribal Water Rights Hearing in Senate Committee

The Rundown

Senators discussed Indian water rights, while a House committee heard complaints from states over stream protection rule. Western states received $US 50 million for water conservation and recycling. NOAA issued the first algae forecast of the year. Two reports assessed climate adaptation by federal agencies. Yakima River Basin water availability declines. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a $US 35 billion water and energy spending bill.

“Today, implementing existing settlements and reaching new agreements is more important than ever given the need for water on many Indian reservations and throughout the West and the uncertainty regarding its availability due to drought, climate change, and increasing demands for this scarce resource…Settlements have been, and should remain, a top priority for the federal government.” — Michael Connor, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, testifying before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about tribal water rights settlements.

By the Numbers

$US 35.4 billion: Water and energy budget passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, a 3.5 percent increase over current spending. (Senate Appropriations)
$US 50 million: Funding for water conservation and efficiency projects in the American West (Bureau of Reclamation)
4 percent: Average annual decline since 2007 in water withdrawals from the Great Lakes Basin in the United States. (International Joint Commission)
44 percent: Portion of their water allocation that junior rights holders in Washington state’s Yakima River Basin will receive this year, down from 73 percent in March. (Bureau of Reclamation)

Reports and Studies

Great Lakes Protected from Diversion
The U.S. states and Canadian provinces surrounding the Great Lakes have successfully adopted the policies and practices to block large-scale water diversions and to reduce consumptive water use, according to a 10-year policy review published by the commission that manages water bodies shared by the two countries.

“What is described in this report is for the most part a good news story,” the report states. “The policy gaps identified by the International Joint Commission in 2000 have been largely filled.”

The report makes a number of recommendations, including continued monitoring and data collection, and a greater consideration of groundwater, which is being pumped at unsustainable rates in southeast Wisconsin and the Waterloo-Kitchener region of Ontario.

Climate Change Adaptation Update
Federal agencies responsible for water management are making progress in responding to climate change, according to an annual evaluation. Eight of 24 actions identified in a national adaptation plan published in 2011 have been achieved, according to the report. These successes include data collection, development of tools for local governments to assess drought and flood risks, and monitoring programs for water-borne diseases.

Climate Change and the Government
A second report looks at the internal measures that federal water and land agencies are taking to address the effects of climate change on their operations. President Obama required agencies to look climate change in the face under two executive orders, signed in 2009 and 2013.

News Briefs

Tribal Water Rights
A senior official in the Bureau of Reclamation told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that tribal water rights settlements are an important plank in Obama administration policy. Michael Connor, Reclamation’s deputy director, was one of four witnesses for the hearing on Indian water rights.

Though more than two dozen settlements have been signed in the last four decades, much work remains, asserted Steven Moore, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. There are more than 100 federally recognized tribes in California alone, he pointed out. Congress must create a permanent funding source for tribal settlements, Moore argued.

“Although the federal government’s historical treatment of Indian water rights was less than adequate, this Congress has the opportunity to take a new direction,” Moore said. “The future of Indian Nations depends on a consistent commitment from the federal government to develop water supplies and infrastructure in Indian communities. Many states, in recognition that their water problems are inextricably tied to tribal water problems have already made this guarantee.”

Stream Protection Rule
Federal regulators are not working with coal mining states on a rule to regulate the disposal of coal waste into rivers, state officials told a House Natural Resources Committee hearing. Ten states signed an agreement in 2010 to cooperate on an environmental review of a new stream protection rule. The states claim that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has shut them out of the process.

But others criticized state involvement in mining regulation. An organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition told the committee that West Virginia citizens are monitoring water pollution in streams, “essentially doing the job the state regulatory agency is supposed to do.”

On the Radar

Lake Erie Algae Forecast
Researchers predict one of the least severe algae blooms in Lake Erie since 2007, according to NOAA’s first forecast of the year. The researchers caution that there is much uncertainty at this point, only halfway through the farm season, when phosphorus inputs to the lake spike. Phosphorus is a nutrient that feeds the algae.

Great Lakes Advisory Committee
The EPA is seeking nominations for experts to serve on a new Great Lakes advisory committee. The committee will analyze outcomes from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, one of the federal government’s signature environmental programs. Nominations are due June 19 and should be emailed to with the subject line “SIS Nomination 2014” to cestaric.rita@epa.gov.

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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