Federal Water Tap, December 19: Obama Administration Blocks Mine in Minnesota Wilderness

The Rundown

U.S. Forest Service rejects renewal of two mining leases near the Boundary Waters in northeastern Minnesota. DuPont agrees to pay $US 50 million to cleanup mercury pollution in a Virginia river. The EPA’s final report on hydraulic fracturing identifies cases of water pollution at all stages of the water cycle in oil and gas production. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will review its rules for providing water to cities and industries. The corps, meanwhile, grants metro Atlanta’s wish for a Lake Lanier water supply. Obama signs a big water infrastructure bill. A restoration plan was finalized for the Kalamazoo River and proposed for the Missouri River. And lastly, the Bureau of Reclamation offers two prize competitions: to design an arsenic sensor and low-brine desalination technology.

“I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the [Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness] might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.” — Thomas Tidwell, U.S. Forest Service chief, in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management regarding a mine lease in northeastern Minnesota. Tidwell rejected the lease extension.

By the Numbers

$US 50 million: Settlement with the chemical company DuPont to clean up mercury pollution in Virginia’s South River, a tributary of the Shenandoah. A DuPont manufacturing facility near Waynesboro released mercury into the river in the 1930s and 1940s that persists to this day. (Justice Department)

100 parts per billion: Phosphorus levels in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, more than double what they were in the 1980s. High nutrient levels, largely from farm runoff, contributed to the summer 2016 algal blooms in estuaries that receive the lake’s water. (National Academy of Sciences)

$US 5 million: Research funding for understanding the interaction between water, food, and energy systems. The application deadline is March 6. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

News Briefs

Mine Lease Cancelled in Boundary Waters Wilderness
In a move to protect an ecologically valuable asset and to preserve a recreation economy built on canoeing and fishing, the Obama administration denied renewal of two hardrock mining leases adjacent to the Boundary Waters wilderness area in northeastern Minnesota. No mining had yet taken place on the land, which is in the Superior National Forest and above large deposits of copper, nickel, zinc, and other minerals.

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, which denied the permits, cited concerns about acidic mine waste in an area that is laced with interconnected waterways.

The U.S. Forest Service also submitted an application to the Bureau of Land Management to prohibit new leases in parts of the watershed that drain into the wilderness. The BLM can halt development for up to 20 years. Only Congress can declare a permanent ban.

Army Corps Updates Reservoir Operation Guide for Key Southern Watershed
That watershed is the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint, shared by Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The latter two just wrapped up a five-week hearing before a Supreme Court-appointed legal expert. Florida, at the end of the system, argues that it should receive more water.

The point of contention in updating the master control manual for the basin’s five federally-operated reservoirs is water use for the 3.3 million people in metropolitan Atlanta that are served by Lake Lanier. The lake has been tapped more frequently since the 1970s for municipal use. Whether the Army Corps has the authority to do that has been the subject of numerous lawsuits in the last quarter-century.

The update of the master control manual proposes to meet metro Atlanta’s water supply request in full. This means that recreational use of the lake will be restricted more often because of lower lake levels. The manual also sets the parameters for raising river levels in the lower basin to allow for commercial boat traffic.

Important caveat: the Army Corps water supply assessment that supports its decision to grant metro Atlanta’s request assumed that per person water demand would not change through 2050 even though that figure is trending downward. Future demand is thus likely to be lower than stated.

Another caveat: the special master assigned to the Florida-Georgia Supreme Court case has not yet made a ruling on Florida’s claim for more water. That ruling could affect the master manual.

Obama Signs Water Infrastructure Bill
President Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, a wide-ranging bill that churned through Congress at the last minute after many months of debate.

The inclusion of language to increase the flow of water in California to farms in the Central Valley almost thwarted the bill. In his signing statement, the president called out these provisions noting that they should be carried out while respecting the Endangered Species Act and all water quality laws.

Studies and Reports

EPA Releases Final Report on Hydraulic Fracturing and Drinking Water
It was a long and twisting road. Five years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a study of how hydraulic fracturing affects drinking water sources. The agency used a broad definition. It looked at all steps in oil and gas development related to hydraulic fracturing — from water withdrawals to underground injection through the collection and disposal of waste water.

On December 13, the agency released its final report. The report notes that the oil and gas production process has polluted water sources or increased local water stress at “all stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle,” including spills of fracking fluids or waste water. This does not mean that every fracking well or site pollutes. Many don’t. But some — namely those wells that are poorly constructed — do.

The agency, however, cannot say with any precision the scale and severity of the problems because of inadequate data and reporting.

Final Kalamazoo River Restoration Plan Includes Dam Removal
State and federal agencies determined that a plan to repair damage to Michigan’s Kalamazoo River from PCB pollution will be broad. To maximize ecosystem health, the plan includes areas of the watershed not directly contaminated by the pulp mills that lined its banks decades ago.

The restoration plan does not target PCB-contaminated soil. That is being done already by the EPA. The plan also calls for the removal of two dams on the river. A precondition for dam removal, however, is the elimination of tainted sediments lodged behind the dams.

Missouri River Reservoir Operations
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering six options for altering its reservoir and dredging operations to prevent harm to two endangered species (interior least tern and pallid sturgeon) and one threatened species (Great Northern Plains piping plover) in the Missouri River watershed.

Each of the options is a variation on building new habitat, either through sandbars for nesting birds or shallow water for young sturgeon.

Public comments are being accepted through February 24 and can be submitted online. A final environmental impact statement is expected in the spring of 2018.

Everglades Restoration Review
In light of sea level rise, changing hydrology, and warmer temperatures, officials and scientists need to reevaluate the goals and assumptions of a landmark Everglades restoration project, according to a National Academy of Sciences progress report. Congress approved the plan in 2000.

WaterSMART Six-Year Review
The Interior Department’s water conservation, efficiency, and planning program published a six-year progress report. The program has conducted 25 studies to assess water supply and demand in western basins and funded 36 water recycling projects. The report comes with an interactive web tool that displays the location of grant recipients and basin studies.

High Plains Aquifer Flow Model
The U.S. Geological Survey developed a computer model for understanding groundwater flows in the northern High Plains Aquifer, commonly called the Ogallala. The states covered include Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

On the Radar

Army Corps to Review Reservoir Water Supply Rules
The review has significant implications. The corps will clarify its authority under two existing laws to supply water for municipal and industrial use. That authority, which has never gone through a formal rulemaking, has come into question in recent years, most notably in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin where the corps’ contract to supply Atlanta with water from Lake Lanier has been challenged, unsuccessfully, in court. A proposal to sell off “surplus” water from Missouri River reservoirs raised the ire of senators from Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Congress prohibited the corps from carrying out its proposal for 10 years in a 2014 water resources bill.

Public comments are being accepted through February 14. Send them to WSRULE2016@usace.army.mil and include the docket number COE-2016-0016 in the subject line.

Reclamation Offers Water Prize Competitions
Everyone, it seems, has a prize competition these days. The Bureau of Reclamation is in the game too, announcing two more opportunities for inventors. One is to build a cheap sensor to detect arsenic in water supplies. The other is to design desalination technology for inland water systems that reduces the amount of waste brine. Earlier this year the bureau offered a prize for preventing animals from burrowing into dams and levees.

Owens Valley Air Quality Plan Recommended for Approval
The EPA will accept California’s revisions to a plan to reduce air pollution in the Owens Valley from dust particles. The valley has terrible air because Los Angeles diverted water from the river starting in 1913, which dried out the area.

A 2014 agreement established Los Angeles’ responsibility to control dust in the valley. The agreement is the foundation of the revised air quality plan that the EPA proposes to approve.

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.