Democrats are in front of a water-spending push. Flint hearings turn into a blame game. The nation’s streams are mostly in bad shape for aquatic life. February was historically hot. The Columbia River Treaty will be renegotiated, while tearing down the Klamath River dams gets a second look. A big copper mine proposed for Arizona undergoes environmental review. The White House hosts a water summit. The U.S. Supreme Court sees action on two water cases.
“I think this hearing is going to be known as the Great Finger-Pointing Hearing. We’ve got Flint mayor throwing people under the bus; we’ve got Flint former emergency manager throwing people under the bus; we’ve got Ms. Hedman, a former EPA administrator for that area, throwing people under the bus. But somewhere it seems like people were asleep at the tap not doing their job.” — Rep. John Mica (R-FL), on the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on the Flint lead scandal.
By the Numbers
2.2 degrees F: Amount by which average land and ocean temperatures in February exceeded the 20th century average, a record for any month. This measurement is called a departure from normal. The six highest departures from normal have occurred in the last six months. (NOAA)
46 percent: Share of U.S. rivers and streams that are too polluted or degraded for healthy populations of fish, worms, insect larvae, crayfish, and other bottom-dwelling creatures. Phosphorus and nitrogen are the most common pollutants. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
59 percent: Odds that water levels in Lake Mead will drop in 2018 to the point in which a first-ever shortage is declared. Those projections were made before a warm, dry February sapped the basin’s snowpack. (Bureau of Reclamation)
More Calls for Federal Water Infrastructure Funding
The Flint lead scandal is prompting more and more congressional representatives to support higher federal spending on water infrastructure.
Ninety-six House Democrats asked the House Appropriations Committee to double funding for the state revolving funds, to $US 4 billion. The funds provide low-interest loans for water and sewer projects.
Meanwhile, 17 Senate Democrats plus Bernie Sanders, who identifies an as independent, asked the Senate Appropriations Committee for $US 70 million for the WIFIA program, a new water fund which provides low-interest loans to large water projects.
At hearings last week, the House Oversight Committee released 21 pages of emails, mostly from the EPA Region 5 office. The messages reveal the turf battles between state and federal agencies and the hesitancy of the EPA regional office to push the Flint matter.
Miguel Del Toral, the office’s regulations manager and an early, steadfast advocate for agency action, urged on July 15, 2015, that the EPA notify Flint that it was violating the lead treatment rule.
When no action was taken, Del Toral was furious. He wrote on September 22, 2015, to his superiors in the Region 5 groundwater and drinking water branch that concerns about jurisdiction were trumping public health.
“At every stage of this process,” he wrote, “it seems that we spend more time trying to maintain state/local relationships than we do trying to protect the children. I said this from the very beginning and I will say this again…you don’t have to drop a bowling ball off of every building in every city to prove that gravity (and science) will work the same way everywhere. It’s basic chemistry.”
He continued: “There is nothing that can be done in the immediate future with respect to treatment that can prevent more children from being further damaged. Someone needs to require that the residents of Flint be provided with water filters until they can fix the treatment.
“Sorry for the rant, but I am very upset about this because I told people this was going to be the outcome. I watched this movie before in Washington, D.C.” — which had a lead contamination scandal in 2004 — “and we are heading down the exact same path of denial and delay and meanwhile, the children are being irreparably damaged.”
Columbia River Treaty Review
Canada has agreed to begin negotiations to revise the Columbia River Treaty, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office. The Washington Democrat discussed the treaty with Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, during his Washington, D.C. visit in early March.
The treaty, ratified in 1964, governs the use of the river for hydropower and flood control. A revised treaty will most likely address salmon, ecosystems, and tribal rights.
Studies and Reports
Two Illinois Democrats wrote to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency asking him to begin a study on urban flooding. The study was required as part of the 2016 spending bill that passed last December.
Arizona Mine Study
Tonto National Forest announced it will begin an environmental review of what would be one of the largest, deepest mines in the country.
The Resolution Copper Project in southeastern Arizona is also controversial. The mining would take place as much as 7,000 feet beneath land that is sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe. That land is currently owned by the federal government. Congress authorized a “land swap” in December 2014 to give control to Resolution in exchange for private land elsewhere.
Public comments on the scope of the review are due by May 17 and can be sent to email@example.com.
On the Radar
White House Water Summit
On March 22 — World Water Day — water leaders will gather at the White House for a water summit. The Obama administration is holding the event to bring awareness to water issues and highlight technology solutions. It will be streamed live on the web at https://www.whitehouse.gov/live.
Western States Water Council
Also this week, the Western States Water Council holds its spring meeting in Washington, D.C. The council will meet with federal agency leaders and congressional representatives.
New Process to Remove Klamath River Dams
Though a comprehensive solution to the Klamath Basin’s water problems failed in Congress, the parties are still trying to remove four dams on the river’s main stem. The parties — local, state, and federal agencies — released a draft revised Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement last week that will result in the dams being torn down without needing federal legislation.
Clean Water Act Supreme Court Case
Farm lobbies, chambers of commerce, and homebuilders groups have filed briefs supporting a peat mining company’s Clean Water Act challenge, which is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co. Inc., deals with procedural matters under the Clean Water Act. The question is whether a landowner can ask a judge to review a federal agency’s decision that wetlands or waterbodies on the property are regulated.
Oral arguments are scheduled for March 30.
U.S. Supreme Court Groundwater Case
Meanwhile, the Commercial Appeal reports that federal government has joined Tennessee, the city of Memphis, and the city utility in seeking to dismiss a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over groundwater pumping. Mississippi filed the lawsuit last year, claiming that Memphis is drawing down an aquifer shared by the two states and causing water beneath Mississippi to flow into Tennessee.
The motion to dismiss argues that because the aquifer has not been legally divided between the states, Tennessee cannot be stealing it.
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