Federal Water Tap, December 12: House and Senate Pass the Turducken of Water Infrastructure Bills

The Rundown

Water infrastructure bill delivers a lot of meat and a panful of drippings. EPA survey finds nutrient pollution is biggest stressor for U.S. lakes. EPA drinking water advisory group discusses lead and unregulated contaminants. The number of dams in the United States increases in new survey. To aid wetland health, Lake Ontario water levels will be allowed to fluctuate. Regulators approve another electricity transmission line from Canada that will boost hydropower imports. The EPA publishes lending guidelines for WIFIA, a federal loan program for water projects. The Interior Department blocks coal mining on certain ridge lines in eastern Tennessee and reports on water markets in the American West. The White House issues an executive order on invasive species. And lastly, can Trump pull out of the Paris Agreement?

“It is awfully messy. There will be a lot of litigation.” — Holly Doremus, a UC Berkeley School of Law professor, commenting on provisions in a water infrastructure bill that outlines when more water can be pumped out of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

By the Numbers

90,580: Number of dams in the United States in the latest update to the National Inventory of Dams, an increase of 4 percent. The inventory includes dams taller than 6 feet with a storage capacity of more than 50 acre-feet and dams taller than 25 feet with a storage capacity of more than 15 acre-feet. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

40: Percent of U.S. lakes that have “excessive” levels of phosphorus, according to a national lakes survey. Nutrients, including nitrogen, are the biggest stressor for lakes. Though levels are low, there was a notable increase in the prevalence of microcystin, an algal toxin. This is the second national survey and reflects data collected from more than 1,000 lakes in the summer of 2012. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

74,968: Acres of ridge line in eastern Tennessee declared off limits for coal mining. Tennessee requested that the federal government make the designation. (Interior Department)

News Briefs

Big Water Infrastructure Bill Clears Congress
Congress passes fewer bills these days, but the big ones are so laden with extra weight that they can have trouble getting off the ground. The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act is a showcase example, like a turducken come to life and straining for liftoff. (A turducken, to be clear, is a holiday dinner oddity: a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken.)

Despite some last-minute obstruction from a retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the bill passed both the House and Senate by veto-proof margins. Two items are attracting headlines: One is aid to fix lead pipes in Flint. The bill authorizes $US 100 million in low-interest loans for lead service line replacement in Flint and $US 300 million in grants over five years for lead service line replacement nationwide. Partial replacements, which increase lead levels, are not eligible. It bears repeating: authorization, which approves a project, does not equal appropriation, which allocates money. Also, $US 30 million is authorized for public health programs and $US 100 million over five years for lead testing in schools.

The other eye-catcher is a California drought package that has twisted through the halls of Congress for two years, only now finding an escape route.

This bill has layers though. Layers on layers. Other provisions in its 277 pages include:

  • Authorization of 37 new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects for navigation, flood risk, hurricane protection, and ecosystem restoration.
  • Approval of three Indian water rights settlements, with the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations of Oklahoma, and the Pechanga Band of California.
  • $US 445 million in grants to repair high-hazard dams that are not owned by the federal government. (Sneak preview: check Circle of Blue later this week for a couple stories on dam failures.)
  • Requiring the secretary of the Navy to submit a comprehensive plan for preventing contaminated groundwater at a naval base on Long Island from spoiling more drinking water wells. The plan is due within 180 days.
  • Requiring a study on the costs and benefits of domestic and foreign sources of sediment for “shoreline protection.”
  • Pilot projects for the “beneficial use” of dredged material. Reducing storm damage is one example.
  • Authorization of state regulatory programs for coal ash disposal.
  • Authorization of funding for restoration projects in the Columbia River Basin, Everglades, Great Lakes, Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles River, Puget Sound, and more.

No Energy Bill
Another legislative mashup did not make it across the finish line. An energy policy bill that included provisions on hydropower dam relicensing, forest fires, conservation funds, and water-energy connections was shelved by the House. Senate leaders who worked on the bill were not happy. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called it “irresponsible” to abandon more than a year of work.

Water Infrastructure Lending Program Nearly Finalized
Two years ago, President Obama signed into law a new federal loan program for water projects. The EPA has released an “interim final” rule that lays out lending guidelines.

Called WIFIA, the program targets larger projects (generally those costing more than $US 20 million) and allows for projects operated by the private sector, so long as the company has the support of a government sponsor. The EPA is accepting comments for the next 60 days at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2016-0569.

National Drinking Water Advisory Council Meeting
The council, which gives policy advice to the EPA, met in Washington, D.C., last week. The agenda and presentations can be found here.

There was a lot of talk about partnerships. Also discussed: when to issue health advisories for worrisome contaminants. Health advisories are not a regulation; rather, they are scientific documents that indicate safe levels of contaminants in drinking water. However, when the EPA revises a health advisory, many utilities act as if it were a new regulation. For example: the PFOA/PFOS revision this spring.

Invasive Species Executive Order
President Obama amended an existing executive order that outlines the federal government’s response to invasive species. The new order directs agencies to consider climate change when analyzing the spread of plants and animals to new habitats.

Studies and Reports

Lake Ontario Water Management Change Approved
To rebuild wetlands, managers will allow water levels in Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River, regulated by a dam, to more closely resemble natural patterns. Called Plan 2014, the change in management is the product of nearly two decades of scientific study and government review. Current regulation of lake levels dates to a 1956 order.

The Canadian and U.S. governments approved the plan, which goes into effect in January. For more information, see a Circle of Blue story and infographic.

Another Transmission Line for Canadian Hydropower Imports Approved
The Department of Energy approved a permit for the 154-mile New England Clean Power Link, a high-voltage electricity transmission line from Quebec to southern Vermont. Part of the line will be buried underground and part will be a cable laid on the bottom of Lake Champlain.

It is the second cross-border transmission line receiving federal approval in recent weeks that will increase hydropower imports from Canada. In November, regulators gave the green light to the Great Northern transmission line from Manitoba to Minnesota.

Can Trump Pull Out of the Paris Agreement?
It’s not so easy, says a Congressional Research Service briefing. An article in the agreement stipulates that the right to withdraw is not available until three years after the agreement goes into effect. That would be November 2019. Trump could attempt to pull the United States out of the underlying treaty, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, but that may require the consent of Congress. The law is not clear.

Water Markets Report
The Bureau of Reclamation released a report on its role in facilitating water sales in the American West. The bureau’s canals and reservoirs are often used to store and deliver marketed water. The bureau is also reviewing ways to lower barriers to transfers, through quicker permitting or data collection.

On the Radar

Cabinet Nominations
Donald Trump made two cabinet picks who will lead agencies closely involved in federal water policy. Trump nominated Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, to head the EPA and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican who represents eastern Washington in Congress, as Interior secretary.

Pruitt, a climate change denier, is one of the attorneys general suing to stop the EPA’s plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants and to halt a rule that defines which waters are regulated by the Clean Water Act. On natural resources policy, McMorris Rodgers has supported hydropower and forest management.

Lawsuit Over Long Island Sound Dredging
New York will sue the EPA because the agency is allowing sand and muck dredged from Connecticut harbors to be dumped into Long Island Sound, the Hartford Courant reports. New York worries about harm to marine ecosystems, though the EPA claims there will be no ill effect.

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.