The EPA delays strontium regulations. Expect an active EPA in 2016. Klamath Basin agreements expire. Forest Service finalizes revised water rights rule for ski areas. CRS summarizes drought legislation. Oklahoma counties are named disaster areas.
“A broad policy question is whether the issue that Congress is addressing is the current Western drought, drought in arid regions, drought in any part of the United States, or gaps in water supply and demand.” — Congressional Research Service analysis of drought bills in Congress.
By the Numbers
122: Number of ski areas in the United States that operate on U.S. Forest Service land (U.S. Forest Service)
18: Counties in Oklahoma, out of 77, designated as disasters areas because of flooding and are eligible for federal funding and low-interest loans (White House)
Studies and Reports
Drought Bill Recap
Neither of the two major drought bills that were introduced in Congress passed in 2015. The Congressional Research Service, which provides information and analysis to Congress, summarized both bills and concluded that the quest for drought legislation raises questions about how to reconcile environmental protections with the demand from cities and farms for more water.
Water Game Theory
Good at balancing a checkbook? Try your hand at water use. The Army Corps of Engineers developed the Missouri River Basin Balancer, an educational game for learning about water allocation. All decisions must respect federal legislation and authorized uses!
Klamath Agreements Terminate
There was no last-minute rescue. Because Congress did not pass legislation by December 31, a trio of hard-earned water-sharing agreements in the Klamath River Basin expired. The agreements also provided a pathway for removing four hydropower dams in the basin.
Three Indian tribes gave notice earlier this year that they would pull out of the deal if Congress did not act. An Oregon congressman circulated a draft bill in early December, but it was too late in the game. What comes next? Uncertainty. Dam removal could still happen because federal relicensing will require expensive upgrades to facilitate fish movement upriver.
Forest Service and Ski Areas
The U.S. Forest Service will not require ski resorts to transfer water rights to the federal government, as it had proposed in 2012, according to a rule finalized on December 30. States and ski operators argued that the original proposal was tantamount to a taking of property and an unacceptable business risk. The Forest Service will now require ski resorts to show that they have sufficient water available for snowmaking and other resort operations, when they apply for a permit to use public land.
Microbead Ban Signed
President Obama signed a bill that bans the use of small pieces of plastic in soaps, shampoos, and toothpastes. Much of the plastic, untouched by wastewater treatment plants, ends up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. The ban begins in July 2018.
On the Radar
Happy New Year! A few items to keep an eye on in 2016:
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will begin holding hearings in February on the next Water Resources Development Act, according to a release from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), committee chair. The act is a major funding source for dams, levees, and ports.
Regulations — Stormwater and Strontium
The Environmental Protection Agency is under a court order to update stormwater runoff regulations. The agency will decide by May whether to regulate runoff from forest logging roads, which add dirt and mud to streams. Then by November 17, the agency must issue new permitting rules for urban stormwater, which carries grease, oil, road salts, and other chemicals.
The EPA will also revise a rule that aims to reduce lead and copper in drinking water. The draft rule, the importance of which is magnified by lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, is expected in December. A federal advisory group published its recommended changes last August.
Unregulated contaminants will be in the news, too. The EPA was expected to set first-ever limits on strontium in drinking water in 2016, but it announced today that it is delaying a final decision. More studies are needed on the naturally occurring metal that affects bone development in children, the agency stated. The EPA also decided that four other contaminants that it was considering for potential regulation did not require federal standards at this time.
Those five contaminants were drawn from a candidate list, which is updated every five years. The EPA should finalize the next edition of the list early in 2016. The draft list includes 100 chemicals and 12 microbes that do not have a federal limit in drinking water. The agency uses the list to decide which contaminants it should regulate. Strontium is on the current enumeration.
The U.S. Supreme Court is handling several water cases, all of which have been referred to a special master, who holds hearings, gathers facts, and submits a recommended ruling to the high court. Texas argues that groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is reducing the amount of water in the Rio Grande, which is governed by an interstate compact. Mississippi claims that groundwater pumping in Tennessee is drawing water away from Mississippi territory. And Florida has sued Georgia over water use in a shared river basin. Florida and Georgia, however, are pursuing a settlement outside of court.
The Supreme Court will also hear a Clean Water Act case, according to Reuters. The question at hand is when property owners can challenge a federal government ruling that developing their land requires a Clean Water Act permit.
Though it will not be resolved in 2016, the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit over nitrate pollution in Iowa rivers has significant Clean Water Act implications.
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