Federal Water Tap, August 1: Energy Department Report Endorses U.S. Hydropower Growth

The Rundown

The Energy Department identifies a path for more U.S. hydropower. The White House issues a cyberattack response plan. The EPA issues water quality recommendations to protect fish from copper and selenium, while the EPA’s internal watchdog delays an investigation into the Gold King mine spill. Federal agencies make “little progress” on a national levee safety program. The Bureau of Reclamation shuffles water around California to cope with a drying reservoir. Regulators strengthen emergency planning for oil train spills. The U.S. Geological Survey finds declining groundwater levels in the Klamath River Basin while the Bureau of Reclamation will temporarily reduce water flows in the basin for an endangered fish. And will text messages be required to alert Great Lakes residents of combined sewer overflows?

“We need sources that bring those attributes to the table and hydropower is definitely one.” — Jose Zayas, director of the Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, speaking with Circle of Blue about the department’s report on the future of hydropower in the United States. The attributes he mentioned were the flexibility to balance electric grid demands, domestically produced, and low-carbon, among others.

In the interview Zayas agreed that growth in hydropower generation would benefit the country. Most of the growth, according to the report, will come not from new dams but from adding turbines to canals or dams that do not currently produce power. Hydropower capacity could rise from 79.6 gigawatts today to 92.6 gigawatts by 2050, according to computer modeling used in the report.

The report also envisions a much larger role for pumped storage hydropower, which means using an upper and lower reservoir in tandem to store surplus energy, such as from wind and solar. Pumped storage capacity could grow from 21.6 gigawatts today to 57.6 gigawatts by 2050.

By the Numbers

$US 127 million: Drought aid given to six countries in southern Africa — Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. The money will go toward food, seeds, medicine, and drinking water. (U.S. Agency for International Development)

60,000 acre-feet: Amount of water being “swapped” between water agencies in California because a key reservoir jointly owned by the state and federal governments is too low to deliver the water that was promised. San Luis Reservoir stores water for farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It is at 10 percent capacity right now. (Bureau of Reclamation)

35 percent: Reduction in water flow from Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon for seven to 10 days in August. The reduction is an experiment to see if keeping more water in the lake helps the basin’s suckers, an endangered fish species. (Bureau of Reclamation)

News Briefs

White House Issues National Cybersecurity Plan
The Obama administration submitted the federal government’s plan for responding to “significant” cyberattacks, meaning those that threaten the economy, national security or public health and safety. The FBI will lead the criminal or terrorist investigation while the Department of Homeland Security will be in charge of helping the organization that was attacked to recover. Water utilities, both large and small, are vulnerable to hacking and are designated in federal cyber-policy as a “critical infrastructure.”

Gold King Mine Evaluation Delayed
The EPA’s internal watchdog is conducting two investigations of the August 2015 spill that released mine waste into streams and rivers in southwestern Colorado. The Office of the Inspector General said that the evaluation of the agency’s response is delayed until details related to the criminal investigation can be made publically available.

EPA Updates Pollution Guidelines to Protect Fish
The EPA is revising pollution guidelines for two chemicals: copper and selenium. The revisions are designed to protect fish, frogs, and other aquatic species. The guidelines are not a regulation. States are allowed to set different standards if they are “scientifically defensible.”

For copper, the EPA is soliciting comments on a draft scientific assessment. The comment period is open through September 27 via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2016-0332.

For selenium, the EPA finalized its recommendations, which suggest that states use chemical concentrations in fish body tissue to set standards. Selenium bioaccumulates, meaning it builds up in muscles and organs over time. The old guidelines reflected concentrations in the water only.

The agency also proposes special selenium targets for the San Francisco Bay and Delta. Public comments on those targets, which also take body tissue accumulation into account, are due September 13. They should be submitted via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2015-0392.

Safer Crude-by-Rail
Federal regulators proposed new rules that would expand emergency planning requirements for rail companies carrying oil. The proposal also requires more disclosure of hazardous cargo information to local and state agencies.

Some issues to watch as the proposal goes through the rulemaking process: will spill response plans be publically available (currently they are not)? Will plans be required for high-consequence areas, notably river corridors? Will the mandatory response time (currently 12 hours) be shortened for these areas?

Public comments are being accepted through September 27 and should be submitted via www.regulations.gov using docket number PHMSA-2014-0105 (HM-251B)

Florida Gains Safe Drinking Water Act Oversight Powers
Federal law allows the EPA to delegate enforcement and oversight of the Safe Drinking Water Act to the states as long as state programs met certain standards. The EPA is handing authority to Florida to oversee three SDWA programs: the Stage 2 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule, the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, and the Ground Water Rule.

Studies and Reports

Groundwater Pumping in Klamath Basin Affects Water Balance
Call it a domino effect.

Irrigators in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California are pumping more groundwater because of restrictions on river water. Those restrictions are designed to protect endangered fish species. But an increase in groundwater use is doing two things: lowering aquifer levels and reducing the flow of water into drainage canals. The decline has regional implications. The canals are a source of supply for federal wildlife refuges and downstream farms.

The U.S. Geological Survey documents the effect in a new report. Groundwater levels declined between 10 feet and 30 feet between 2001 and 2010. Groundwater flow to the drainage canals dropped by just over 20 percent compared to the 1997 to 2000 average.

Little Progress on Levee Safety
Besides a national inventory of levees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are making “little progress” in implementing a levee safety program ordered by Congress in 2014, a federal watchdog found. In interviews with officials, the Government Accountability Office also found that the agencies have no plan for carrying out the provisions, some of which have no deadline and others of which the deadline has passed.

On the Radar

Everglades Restoration Project
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin an environmental review of a watershed restoration project on the western edge of the Everglades. The project aims to mimic natural water flows and reduce stormwater pollution in more than 440,000 acres. A draft review is expected by the end of 2017.

Text Message Alerts for Sewer Overflows?
The EPA will hold a public meeting in Chicago on September 14 to discuss a new regulation for notifying residents of the Great Lakes Basin about combined sewer overflows. Questions the agency is pondering: how soon is “immediate” notification? What form should notification take: text message, website post, announcement from a health agency? Some 184 communities in the basin have combined sewers, which transport household waste and stormwater.

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.