Michigan senators propose federal funds for Flint while the House Oversight Committee schedules first congressional hearing on the drinking water crisis. Wetland banking program gets federal funding. EPA publishes draft pesticide general permit. The Supreme Court is hearing another Clean Water Act case. A damaged natural gas pipeline beneath the Delaware River is being replaced. U.S. irrigation is projected to decline with climate change.
“The water crisis in Flint is an immense failure on the part of the State of Michigan to protect the health and safety of the City’s residents. While the State must accept full responsibility, the federal government can leverage investments the State needs to make.” — Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) introducing federal legislation to help Flint.
By the Numbers
$US 400 million: Federal dollars proposed by Michigan’s senators to fix Flint’s water infrastructure. The money would have to be matched dollar-for-dollar by state funds. (Sen. Debbie Stabenow)
$US 200 million: Federal dollars proposed over 20 years to study the effects of lead poisoning in Flint. The money would go to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Sen. Debbie Stabenow)
$US 9 million: Initial funding for a Natural Resources Conservation Service wetland “mitigation bank.” This type of program allows for wetlands to be paved or drained in one area but restored in another, thus resulting in no net change in wetland acreage. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Studies and Reports
Water Asset Management: Taking Care of Your Pipes
Repairing or replacing pipes before they break is a measure of prudent water asset management. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture are training small utilities on asset management, but the federal agencies ought to track the results of its efforts, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
Declining Irrigation in a Warming United States
U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers summarize the highlights from a November 2015 paper on the effect of climate change on U.S. irrigation. Irrigated acres are expected to decline as the country warms. Why? Either more rain reduces the need for irrigation, or less water constrains the ability of farmers to irrigate. In some cases, dryland farming (meaning without irrigation) may become more profitable.
On February 3, the House Oversight Committee will hold the first congressional hearing on the Flint lead crisis.
Called to testify are EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials, the Virginia Tech researcher who helped identify the lead problem, and the former Flint emergency manager who was in charge when the city switched its water source to the Flint River.
The crisis has already claimed one federal official, Susan Hedman, EPA Region 5 administrator. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the committee chairman, issued a scalding statement following Hedman’s resignation, who stepped down because of the regional office’s mishandling of the Flint crisis.
“EPA is rife with incompetence and Region 5 is no exception,” Chaffetz said. “Mismanagement has plagued the region for far too long and Ms. Hedman’s resignation is way overdue. The lack of accountability throughout the EPA has allowed problems to fester and crises to explode. One resignation will not change the top to bottom scrubbing EPA needs, but it is a step in the right direction.”
Michigan’s senate delegation is attempting to provide $US 600 million in federal funding for Flint. The senators are doing so by introducing an amendment to a large energy bill that is being debated in the Senate.
When asked for comment, the White House said it is reviewing the proposal. “We do believe that it’s appropriate for Congress to pass legislation that would give the city of Flint and the state of Michigan the resources that they need to address this situation,” Josh Earnest, the press secretary, told reporters.
Flint and the EPA
The EPA created a web page that details the agency’s actions in response to the lead contamination crisis.
Energy Policy Modernization Act
A number of amendments to the energy bill involve water. One would prod reservoir operators to change how they manage their dams in order to adapt to drought and water supply variability. According to the amendment from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), at least 15 reservoirs would alter their “rule curves,” the guidelines for when a dam is filled and when water is released.
A second amendment, from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) would establish a drought fund for the federal agency that sells hydropower from federal dams. The fund would be used by the Southwest Power Administration to purchase outside power when water levels in the reservoirs are low.
Pesticide Pollution General Permit
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft pesticide pollution general permit. The terms are similar to the 2011 permits, which are renewed every five-years. General permits are required for point sources – irrigation districts, pesticide manufacturers, mosquito control districts. General permits apply to broad industrial categories, and are not tailored to individual facilities.
Public comments are being accepted through March 11 at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2015-0499.
On the Radar
Clean Water Act in the Supreme Court
The nation’s highest court is again reviewing what course of action property owners have once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determines that Clean Water Act permitting requirements apply to their land.
At question in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc. is whether property owners can challenge the Army Corps’ jurisdictional determination in a federal court before having to undergo the permitting process.
“The case has significant implications for development at sites that are potentially subject to the [Clean Water Act]” by easing the regulatory burden for parties that are pursing permits to develop land, writes Russell Prugh of Marten Law. The Supreme Court heard a similar case, Sackett v. EPA, in 2012, ruling unanimously that EPA enforcement orders could be challenged in court.
The Army Corps filed its opening brief on January 22 but oral arguments have not been scheduled.
Stream Rule Hearing
On February 3, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing to discuss the Stream Protection Rule, a proposed regulation for reducing the damage to watersheds from coal mining.
Energy System Review
On February 4, top U.S. energy officials will host a public meeting on the second comprehensive review of the U.S. electricity system.
Speaking at the event, which will be webcast live, are Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and White House science adviser John Holdren.
Delaware River Pipeline
A natural gas pipeline beneath the Delaware River that was damaged by the Army Corps of Engineers during dredging operations is being replaced. Paulsboro Natural Gas Pipeline Company will lay 2.6 miles of new pipeline under the river.
Public comments on the environmental review will be accepted through February 18. File comments at www.ferc.gov using docket number CP16-27-000.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton