Federal Water Tap, February 29: Mexico Settles Rio Grande Water Debt

The Rundown

Mexico complies with bilateral treaty on sharing Rio Grande water. Congress sets the terms for Flint water aid, but a few senators delay approval. House committee discusses California drought while a Senate committee praises/condemns the Interior Department budget. Canada and the United States agree to cut phosphorus in Lake Erie. A federal appeals court will hear the challenge to the Clean Water Rule. The Coast Guard ditches a proposal to set national standards for hauling fracking wastewater on barges. The Congressional Research Service reports on water infrastructure financing. California representatives wants to exempt water conservation rebates from federal taxes.

“We treat the reservoirs as a bank account. There was a transfer from Mexico’s account to ours.” — Sally Spener, International Boundary and Water Commission spokeswoman, speaking with Circle of Blue about how Mexico paid off its debt of Rio Grande water by transferring the rights to water in Amistad Reservoir, which is shared by the two countries. Mexico also released more water from tributary reservoirs to settle it debt.

By the Numbers

$US 220 million: Federal aid to Flint and other communities for water infrastructure, which was approved by a bipartisan group of senators. (Senate Environment and Public Works Committee)

40 percent: Reduction from 2008 levels in the amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie, according to environment agencies in Canada and the United States. The two countries will now develop plans, due by 2018, for meeting the target. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

2,300 miles: Stream length in Oregon and Washington designated under the Endangered Species Act as “critical habitat” for the lower Columbia River coho salmon. An additional 2,031 miles of critical habitat was designated for the Puget Sound steelhead. Critical habitat is the area where the species lives and area that is important for protecting the species. (National Marine Fisheries Service)

News Briefs

Congress Water Funding
Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed to a $US 220 million aid package for Flint and other communities struggling with old water pipes. The bill will be submitted as an amendment to energy legislation that the Senate is debating.

The Senate would have taken action on the bill last week, but it was held up by several senators, including Ted Cruz, who objected to a quick vote, the Associated Press reports.

Mexico Pays Water Debt
Mexico settled its Rio Grande water debt with the United States.

By treaty, Mexico is required to deliver a certain amount of water over a five-year period from the Rio Grande system to the United States. At the end of the 2010-15 cycle, Mexico had delivered only 85 percent of its requirement. It paid the debt over the last two months by releasing more water from tributary reservoirs and by giving the United States the rights to water held in a Rio Grande reservoir that spans the border.

“We treat the reservoirs as a bank account,” Sally Spener, International Boundary and Water Commission spokeswoman, told Circle of Blue, referring to the transfer of water held in the mainstem reservoirs. The IBWC oversees water treaties between Mexico and the United States.

California Drought Bill
John Garamendi (D-CA) said that he would introduce a $US 1.3 billion California water bill that will include money for dams, water transfers, and emergency aid.

Clean Water Rule Lawsuit
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that it has the jurisdiction to hear challenges to the Obama administration’s rule that defines the scope of the Clean Water Act.

The administration sought to consolidate all the legal challenges to the rule into one case heard before a federal appeals court to avoid conflicting district court rulings.

In response, the Justice Department moved to dismiss a similar lawsuit that had been filed in federal district court in North Dakota, Greenwire reports.

Coast Guard Withdraws Policy for Shipping Fracking Wastewater on Barges
The U.S. Coast Guard is halting the development of a national standard for hauling fracking wastewater on barges because of a lack of interest from the barge industry and smaller-than-expected volumes being shipped.

“We thought demand would be higher, and a standard policy would streamline the approval process,” Cynthia Znati of the Coast Guard’s Hazardous Materials Division told Circle of Blue. “Under the withdrawn policy once the shippers determined the composition of the cargo, they would know how to carry the cargo safely. Since we did not receive as much interest as we expected, we believe we can handle the requests on a case-by-case basis.”

The policy was proposed in October 2013.

No Tax on Water Rebates
A Democrat and a Republican from California introduced a bill that will exclude from federal income taxes the rebates that homeowners receive from water utilities for efficiency improvements.

Interior Budget Hearing
Several water items were addressed during the Senate Energy Committee hearing on the Interior Department’s budget.

  • Al Franken (D-MN) said the lack of funding for the Lewis and Clark regional water system, a water pipeline network for rural towns in the Upper Midwest, is a “source of frustration for Minnesota communities.” Michael Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior, said the department would continue to make piecemeal progress by completing segments of the network, but it was not a top budget priority.
  • Maria Cantwell (D-WA) praised the $US 3 million increase for a fish passage project at a dam in the Yakima River Basin. Cantwell has introduced a comprehensive basin management plan for the Yakima, which Connor described as a “model for working through watershed challenges.”
  • Bill Cassidy (R-LA) was concerned about the diversion of offshore oil and gas revenue marked for Louisiana. The state constitution requires that money to be used for wetland restoration.

Studies and Reports

Transboundary Aquifer Study
The International Boundary and Water Commission published a scientific study of the San Pedro Aquifer, which is beneath Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. Neither the aquifer nor the San Pedro River is managed jointly by the two countries.

Water Infrastructure in Congress
The Congressional Research Service summarizes the options in Congress for financing water infrastructure. Existing programs — such as the state revolving funds — could be expanded. Or new programs — a trust fund, a national infrastructure bank — could be established. Or tax incentives could be offered, such as expanding the interest tax exemption on infrastructure bonds issued by private companies. Each has strengths and weaknesses and a different set of advocates.

Water Use Study of Contested Southeastern Watershed
The U.S. Geological Survey assessed water use in 2010 in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Shared by Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, the basin has been a source of litigation for more than two decades.

On the Radar

Coal Ash Bill Hearing
On March 2, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will markup a bill on coal ash disposal.

Protecting Water Infrastructure from Attack
The National Infrastructure Advisory Council will meet on March 14, in Arlington, Virginia. The group, which advises the Department of Homeland Security, will discuss a report it is preparing on water infrastructure resilience to natural disaster, cyberattack, and climate change.

Review of Flood Assessment Study
The U.S. Geological Survey is updating federal guidelines for determining flood risk that were last revised in 1982. Public comments on the report, which is used in the design of bridges, roads, and dams, will be accepted through April 22.

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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