Federal Water Tap, June 20: House Spending Bill Boosts Drinking Water Funds, Handcuffs EPA

The Rundown

More money for drinking water systems in House spending bill but a familiar whipping for the EPA. Congress approves an oil and gas pipeline safety bill. After an environmentalist was murdered, a Georgia representative wants an investigation in Honduras while a Michigan representative expresses concern about a nuclear waste facility proposed in Canada, near Lake Huron. The EPA prohibits fracking wastewater from being sent to sewage plants. Talks continue on a national network to monitor soil moisture. Learning from other countries about climate adaptation. The USDA will provide poor residents in Flint with more food aid. And what are the odds the Bay Area gets a big shake? It’s a solid bet.

“Congress must keep its focus on Flint and ensure that families get the resources they need to recover from this man-made crisis. Allowing Flint to forgive past drinking water fund loans, in addition to prioritizing the replacement of lead pipes with new federal funds, could help Flint greatly improve its drinking water system.” — Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), whose district includes Flint.

By the Numbers

72 percent: Likelihood of an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater occurring in the San Francisco Bay Area within the next 30 years. Water utilities are already preparing. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is investing $US 4.8 billion to upgrade its system. A major goal is to reduce vulnerability to earthquakes. (U.S. Geological Survey)

$US 8 million: Aid for Madagascar, which is struggling with a drought linked to El Nino. The money will be spent on food and vitamins. (U.S. Agency for International Development)

15,000: Number of EPA staff positions funded in a House spending bill. It is the lowest number since the end of the Reagan administration. (House Appropriations Committee)

News Briefs

Fossil Fuel Pipeline Safety
Congress sent a new pipeline safety bill to President Obama’s desk. The bill requires spill response plans that include an analysis of potential harm to water resources. It also requires that companies conduct surveys of the internal condition of pipelines in “high consequence areas” every 12 months and inspect the outside of the pipelines more frequently if necessary. High consequences areas are defined as the Great Lakes, where Line 5, an oil pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac, has raised public concern about a spill.

House Committee Approves Spending Bill with Drinking Water Increases
The House took a step last week to providing a little more money for Flint and other communities struggling with drinking water pollution and old systems.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that includes increases in several drinking water funds. They include:

  • $US 207 million increase for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans to communities; total funding equals $US 2.1 billion.
  • $US 50 million in new funding for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (WIFIA) program, another loan program.
  • $US 7.7 million increase for improving operations and oversight of drinking water systems.
  • $US 6.5 million to assist communities in planning to replace lead pipes.

The bill, however, also rejects Obama administration environmental goals and handcuffs the EPA’s capacity to regulate. Provisions in the bill prevent the EPA from implementing administration plans to reduce carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, from regulating methane emission from oil and gas production, and from clarifying the regulatory scope of the Clean Water Act.

No Investigation, No Aid
In March, Berta Caceres, a political activist in Honduras who campaigned against dams and mining projects, was murdered in her home. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries for environmental advocates. Now, a U.S. congressman wants the Honduran government to investigate the role of the military and police in abetting the culture of danger, or lose U.S. funding.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) introduced a bill that will withhold U.S. aid to Honduras for military and police until the Honduran government investigates their role in human rights violations. U.S. aid to the country’s security forces amounts to $US 18 million in 2016.

No Fracking Wastewater at Sewage Plants
The EPA finalized a rule that prohibits oil and gas companies from sending fracking wastewater to municipal sewage facilities, which are not equipped to remove the contaminants. The industry had already been following voluntary guidelines to that effect. Most fracking waste, more than 95 percent according to estimates, is injected underground.

National Soil Moisture Network
Natural resources and science agencies held a workshop on May 24-26 on the development of a national network to monitor soil moisture. Soil moisture is the water held in the top few inches of dirt. It is important for forecasting droughts, floods, and crop yields.

The U.S. Geological Survey and Texas A&M University developed a pilot soil moisture system in response to the national climate plan that President Obama outlined in 2013. The pilot system uses state soil moisture networks in Oklahoma and Texas and two national networks. It measures moisture at three depths and is updated daily.

Oil Wastewater Disposal on Osage Tribal Land
Companies or lease holders that drill for oil and gas on the lands of the Osage Nation of northern Oklahoma will not be allowed to use unlined earthen pits to dispose of wastewater, according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs rule. For water, they may use rivers or streams as long as they “do not diminish the supply below the requirements” of the landowner.

Studies and Reports

Climate Change Preparation: How Do Other Countries Do It?
The Obama administration estimates that in the last decade the management of weather-related disasters has cost the federal government $US 357 billion. Without drastic intervention that figure will surely rise in a hotter world.

Hunting for new ideas, the Government Accountability Office looked at climate adaptation plans for four countries — Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the United Kingdom — and the European Union. Each enacted laws that require planning and evaluation, and each coordinates climate resilience with other sectors. The United States has done some of this, the report states.

On the Radar

Lake Huron Nuclear Waste Dump
In a meeting with the new Canadian ambassador to the United States, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) raised concerns about a planned underground nuclear waste facility in Ontario, near Lake Huron.

“In Congress, I will continue to work with Democrats and Republicans who have raised objections to this proposal as we seek to protect the Great Lakes from radioactive contamination,” Kildee said.

Food Aid for Flint
Beginning in September the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide additional food supplies to poor residents in Flint. The 14-pound boxes contain food with vitamins that are said to limit the body’s absorption of lead, according to the USDA. One box per month will be available to some 17,000 residents.

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.