Federal Water Tap, July 18: Senate Leaves for Vacation with Water Bills Still on the Floor

The Rundown

No action yet on important water and environment bills. NOAA establishes a new water office. California and federal agencies release a strategy to save the Delta smelt. The U.S. Geological Survey identifies hot spots for corrosive groundwater and reckons what rising seas will do to Cape Cod. A law expert clears a path to the U.S. Supreme Court for Texas’s lawsuit against New Mexico over the Rio Grande. Congress begins resolving differences in a big energy bill. The Army Corps begins studying a project to improvement central Florida water quality.

“This is not a partisan problem. This is a national crisis. The last [Water Resources Development Act] took on major reforms, and now two years later, it’s time for another WRDA to help clear out the logjam of Corps projects and address concerns with aging infrastructure. Too often we take for granted how water resources and water infrastructure projects affect our daily lives.” — Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) explaining to his colleagues why they should support the Water Resources Development Act, a $US 10.6 billion spending bill for ports, drinking water, levees, and dams.

By the Numbers

$US 10.6 billion: Cost over 10 years of the Water Resources Development Act, which the Senate did not vote on before a nearly two-month summer break.

1.69 billion: Pounds of cigarette butts that are discarded each year globally. A federal agency is soliciting research proposals to study the environmental harm from the toxic substances that leach from cigarette waste. (Food and Drug Administration)

News Briefs

Budget Battles
Approving a federal budget is not easy these days. The Republican-led House passed a $US 32 billion spending bill to fund the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, U.S. Forest Service, and others. The number of EPA employees is capped at 15,000, the lowest since the end of the Reagan administration. The extras in the bill, however, are causing the biggest strife. They include provisions that would block many of the White House’s environmental priorities, including a contentious Clean Water Act interpretation and rules on methane emissions, oil drilling in the Arctic, and Endangered Species Act protection for the grey wolf.

The other side of the aisle was not pleased. The Obama administration said it “strongly opposes” the measure and would veto it: “These provisions threaten to undermine the most basic protections for America’s unique natural treasures and the people and wildlife that rely on them, as well as the ability of States and communities to address climate change and protect a resource that is essential to America’s health — clean water.”

Senators Head to the Beaches
The Senate, meanwhile, packed up for the summer without voting on its version of the EPA spending bill or on a water resources bill that includes $US 300 million for replacing lead water lines and $US 1.5 billion for cleaning up the Great Lakes. Senators return from a nearly two-month break on September 6.

NOAA Establishes New Water Office
The Office of Water Prediction will coordinate the research and forecasting work at three NOAA hydrological centers: the National Weather Service, the National Water Center, and the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center.

Later this summer, the office will launch the first-ever national water model, according to Susan Buchanan, a NOAA spokeswoman. The model, which will crank out updated numbers on soil moisture and water availability every hour, will provide more accurate information for the forecasts generated by individual agencies, such as the National Weather Service’s flood warnings.

Saving the Delta Smelt
California and federal agencies released a strategy to prevent the Delta smelt, an endangered fish, from going extinct. And not only extinct — the strategy aims to increase fish numbers and mend damaged habitat. The fish lives in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a waterway at the center of California’s legal battles for water.

The plan calls for 13 broad actions, including increasing water flows through the delta, adding sand or gravel to marshes to create spawning habitat, reducing urban stormwater pollution, and clearing invasive weeds from nooks where fish congregate. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates dams in the watershed, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will help to implement the plan.

National Water Data
From July 12 to 14, a slew of federal agencies, research universities, environmental groups, and businesses discussed one of the big questions of the day: how to gather, use, and share water data in a way that improves management of the resource. Here is a link to the conference agenda.

Studies and Reports

Where Groundwater Can Eat Pipes
States in the Deep South, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast are most likely to have groundwater that corrodes pipes and allows lead to leach into drinking water, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. Most at risk are the 44 million Americans who rely on a household well, which are generally not regulated. Maintenance and water quality testing is the property owner’s responsibility.

Rising Seas, Rising Groundwater on Cape Cod
If the oceans were to rise by 6 feet, the water table near the coast on Cape Cod would rise by 2 feet, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. Inland areas would see little change. A higher water table could damage roads, interfere with septic systems, and contribute to basement flooding.

Though a rise in the water table could also result in contamination of aquifers with salt water, Donald Walter, the lead author of the study, said that extensive contamination is not likely.

On the Radar

Texas v. New Mexico Water Lawsuit Moves Forward
A “special master” assigned to oversee a lawsuit brought by Texas over water use in the Rio Grande Basin rejected New Mexico’s motion that the case should be dismissed. The action clears a path for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Texas’s claim that New Mexico, located upstream, is violating a water-sharing compact because groundwater pumping is reducing the flow of the Rio Grande.

The special master’s decision is a “big victory” for Texas, a lawyer not involved in the case told the Texas Tribune. New Mexico lawmakers worry about the potential cost of losing the suit: a loss of water and hundreds of millions in damages. A resolution — either an out-of-court settlement or a Supreme Court ruling — could take many more years.

Energy Bill Goes to Conference
The Senate decided to confer with House colleagues on a national energy bill. The Senate passed its version in April and the House in May. Green groups worry that provisions in the House bill will weaken oversight of hydropower.

Army Corps To Redesign Florida’s Lake O
The algae blooms this summer on Florida’s coasts are an inescapable testament that water management in central Florida needs to be fixed. Part of the problem is Lake Okeechobee, the large freshwater lake that is spilling nutrient-enriched water into the St. Lucie estuary. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is beginning an environmental review of a project to slow the flow of water into the lake.

Public comments on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed project are being accepted through July 28 and should be emailed to Gretchen.S.Ehlinger@usace.army.mil. A public meeting will be held on July 26 in Okeechobee, Florida. Details are in the link above.

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.