Federal Water Tap, April 18: Two Investigations of Water Practices in California

The Rundown

Investigators look into spending on big delta tunnel project and accounting trickery at a big irrigation district in California while a House representative scrutinizes the World Bank’s water practices. Three pipeline safety bills compete for approval while a pipeline to ship oil to Canada undergoes federal review. Senators get a private briefing on Iraq’s rickety Mosul Dam. An EPA region administrator steps down. March was hot.

“It is important for the 196 countries involved in the Paris climate agreement to understand what I am saying today — Congress, the courts, climate experts, industry are all pointing to the same conclusion — President Obama’s climate pledge is unobtainable and it stands no chance of succeeding in the United States. For the sake of the economic well-being of America, that’s a good thing.” — a statement from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), defending two decades of opposition to carbon-reduction policies and hoping for the unraveling of U.S. carbon commitments made before the December 2015 climate summit in Paris.

By the Numbers

69 percent of average: Forecast for Colorado River runoff into Lake Powell between April and July. In February, the forecast was for an above-average year, but warm, dry conditions have since cut expectations. (Colorado Basin River Forecast Center)

6 degrees Fahrenheit: Degrees that the average March temperature in the Lower 48 states was above the 20th-century average. It was the fourth-warmest March on record. (NOAA)

News Briefs

Water Privatization Concerns
A Wisconsin Democrat who is a member of the House Committee on Financial Services sent a letter to the president of the World Bank that expressed concern about conflicts of interest in the bank’s water investments.

Rep. Gwen Moore, whose committee has oversight duty over the World Bank, takes aim at the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the bank that deals with the private sector. Moore argues that there is an inadequate separation between the IFC’s investment in private companies and its role as an adviser to foreign governments on water issues. Citing a controversial water utility privatization in Manila, Moore says that mixing the two roles appears to be a way of allowing the IFC to steer business its own way.

House Republicans Mix Drought Wish List with Budget Bill
Goals for California water allocation and policy that House Republicans have failed to advance through standalone legislation are now part of a budget bill before the Appropriations Committee, McClatchy reports.

The $US 37.4 billion water and energy spending package includes provisions to increase the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta and to block federal funding to restore fish habitat in the San Joaquin River.

The bill is likely to pass the House, but will need help in the Senate.

Pipeline Safety Bill
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced a pipeline safety bill last week. It is the third bill to be introduced in Congress to update the national rules. The Pipeline Safety Trust, a well-respected pipeline safety analyst, has a scorecard comparing the three bills.

California Water Investigation, Part I
The Interior Department’s watchdog office opened an investigation into a multibillion-dollar water infrastructure project in California, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been pushing for a pair of water-supply tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the state’s hydrological switchyard and a bruised ecosystem. The investigation is whether federal funds designated for fish and wildlife studies were used for tunnel planning.

California Water Investigation, Part II
Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from northern California, announced that he will lead an investigation of Westlands Water District, one of the largest irrigation districts in the state and reliant on water imported from northern California.

Westlands was fined in March by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for using accounting tricks to cover up inadequate revenues. Westlands is also involved in a settlement negotiated with the Obama administration last year over polluted farm drainage. The settlement would forgive Westlands’ nearly $US 400 million debt to the federal government in exchange for building a drainage system and taking at least 100,000 acres out of production.

This does not sit well with Huffman, who is looking more closely at the deal.

Studies and Reports

Climate Change in the West
The risks to water resources in the driest region of the country are increasing, according to a report on climate change in the American West from the federal agency responsible for the region’s big dams and canals.

The Bureau of Reclamation projects an average temperature increase of 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Snowpack will decline across the region as will summer river flows in the Colorado, Rio Grande, and other desert basins.

To accompany the report, Reclamation built a website to highlight the findings.

On the Radar

Mosul Dam Hearing
On April 20, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a private hearing on the status of the Mosul Dam. The dam, the largest in Iraq, is in poor condition and in urgent need of repair. Last month the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad published a disaster preparation fact sheet on the dam, noting that a failure “would result in severe loss of life, mass population displacement, and destruction of the majority of the infrastructure within the path of the projected floodwave.”

An Italian scout team arrived at the dam last week to prepare the site for engineers, who will soon begin repairs.

Water Innovation Hearing
Also on April 20, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will discuss, publicly, technological innovations for increasing water supplies. Judging by the witness list, expect to hear about water recycling and desalination.

Water Recycling Hearing
On April 20 — busy day — the House Natural Resources Committee will debate the passage of the Water Recycling Acceleration Act, which allows federal funds to be spent on water recycling projects in drought-stricken areas even if the project has not been federally authorized.

EPA Region 9 Leader to Step Down
Jared Blumenfeld, the head of EPA Region 9, which covers Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, and the Pacific Islands, will leave his job on May 6, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Blumenfeld said he simply needed a break. The next item on the 46-year-old’s agenda: a four-month hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Bakken Oil Pipeline Review
The State Department will begin an environmental review of a proposed pipeline that will carry crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation to Canada. Because it crosses an international boundary, the Upland pipeline requires a presidential permit, which is guided by the State Department. The parent company of Upland is TransCanada, which failed to secure a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands.

Public comments on the proposal are being accepted through May 31 at www.regulations.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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