Federal Water Tap, January 18: Obama Administration Declares Federal Emergency in Flint Water Crisis

The Rundown

Federal aid — in the form of bottled water and filters — will flow to residents in Flint. Science board questions EPA fracking study while EPA’s Bristol Bay mining assessment is cleared of accusations of bias. California congressman introduces bill to settle farm drainage lawsuit. EPA wastewater survey suffers from lack of reporting. U.S. corn harvest declines slightly, and few U.S. farms use cover crops. Groundwater pumping in southwest Kansas harms rivers. Nitrate pollution in Corn Belt rivers is complex, and the Great Lakes lacks a comprehensive mercury monitoring system.

“Both the EPA and the Department of Justice have indicated that they’re taking a close look at this situation in terms of the science and in terms of the impact that it has had and could have on local populations. The Department of Justice is obviously taking a look at the decisions that led to this particular situation.” — White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaking on Friday about the federal response to the Flint water crises.

By the Numbers

$US 271 billion: Dollars needed to maintain the nation’s sewer and stormwater infrastructure over the next five years. The figure represents a 20 percent decrease from a report four years ago. Why? Fewer states participating in the survey; changes in methods for calculating costs, which led some projects to be excluded; and states not planning to spend as much due to budget constraints. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

168.4 bushels per acre: Average U.S. corn yield in 2015, a drop of 1.5 percent from the record-setting 2014 harvest. Production is down just over 4 percent, to 13.6 billion bushels. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

40 percent: Share of U.S. corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acres in 2010-11 that were farmed with soil conservation methods such as no-till or strip-till. Cover crops, another conservation practice, were used on only 2 percent of all cropland. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Studies and Reports

EPA Science Advisers Respond to Fracking Study
The EPA’s assessment of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, which was published last June, was generally “appropriate and comprehensive,” according to the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board.

The board, however, found fault with several of the “national-level” conclusions, namely the statement that hydraulic fracturing has not “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The board, comprised of state regulators, researchers, professors, and industry representatives, argued that the statement is ambiguous and does not reflect the uncertainty in the data.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works released a timeline that shows oversight actions taken by Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma since 2009.

Bristol Bay Review
Based on emails, interviews, and other documents, the EPA’s internal watchdog found no evidence of bias or predetermination in the agency’s assessment of a copper mine the Bristol Bay watershed, in Alaska.

Groundwater Pumping Dries Rivers in Kansas
Pumping groundwater is the main cause of declining river flows in southwest Kansas, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

Nitrate in Corn Belt Rivers
U.S. Geological Survey researchers found a complex, shifting relationship between nitrate pollution and waterways in the Midwest. Concentrations — from both nonpoint sources such as farm runoff and point sources such as wastewater plants — vary depending on the time of year, amount of streamflow, and location.

News Briefs

Flint Water Crisis Update
Action is moving quickly. On Thursday evening, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder asked the Obama administration for federal aid to help Flint residents. On Saturday morning, the White House responded, declaring Flint a federal emergency.

That designation allows FEMA to distribute water, water filters, water filter cartridges, water test kits, and other items for the next 90 days.

Meanwhile, the Detroit News reports that the EPA’s regional administrator for the Midwest knew last April that Flint officials were not using corrosion control methods to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water. For months, according to the story, the EPA Region 5 office battled with state regulators over whether Flint was required to use corrosion control. Susan Hedman, the regional administrator, sought a legal opinion, which was not ready until November.

California Farm Drainage Bill
A California congressman introduced a bill that would implement a deal agreed to in principle last year between the Obama administration and Westlands Water District, a powerful farm district in California’s Central Valley.

The bill from Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) matches the terms of the September settlement but, like all California water legislation, faces a steep path in Congress, McClatchy reports. A handful of California Democrats immediately criticized the bill as a give-away to Westlands.

Mercury in the Great Lakes
The International Joint Commission, the binational body that manages waters shared by Canada and the United States, called for a network to monitor mercury from the atmosphere that is deposited in the Great Lakes. Domestic mercury emissions have declined, but global emissions, which can be transported far from their source, are still rising.

House Votes against Water Rules
The U.S. House of Representatives voted to block two water rules. In a largely party-line vote, the House approved a resolution to prevent implementation of the Clean Water Rule, which defines the scope of the Clean Water Act. The president promises to veto the resolution.

The House also voted to block a rule to minimize harm to streams from coal mining.

On the Radar

Watershed Legislation Markup
On January 20, the Senate Environment and Public Works will consider approving bills dealing with watershed restoration in the Great Lakes, Lake Tahoe, and Long Island Sound.

Public Comment Period Extended for Southeast Watershed
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is revising its management plan for reservoirs in the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which is shared by Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The public comment period for the draft plan is extended to January 30.

Fracking Panel Meeting
The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board will hold a public teleconference on February 1 to discuss its assessment of the agency’s report on hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.

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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