Federal Water Tap, March 7: Colorado River Basin: Hot February Weakens Water Supply Forecast While U.S. Forest Service Rejects Grand Canyon Development

The Rundown

Snow melted last month instead of accumulating in the Colorado River Basin. The U.S. Forest Service nixes a Grand Canyon development mainly because of water concerns. Flint water aid is still held up in Congress. A New York representative proposes to swell a water infrastructure fund. The U.S. embassy in Iraq issues a safety warning for a decrepit dam. U.S. aid workers assist in Ethiopia’s drought emergency. The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a challenge to Chesapeake Bay pollution limits. House Oversight Committee announces second Flint water hearing.

“It’s not necessarily what we want to see this time of year.” — Paul Miller, senior hydrologist at NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, talking about snow melting already at low elevations in the basin because of a hot, dry February.

By the Numbers

15 percent: Decline in the Colorado River runoff forecast in the last month. The forecast is for the amount of water that will flow into Lake Powell between April and July. (Colorado Basin River Forecast Center)

6 kilometers: Distance from the Tigris River that residents of Mosul, Iraq, would need to move to be safe if the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest, were to fail. (U.S. Embassy in Iraq)

News Briefs

Grand Canyon Rim Development Denied
The Kaibab National Forest ended its review of a proposed development on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim because of widespread opposition, largely on account of water.

“Based on information received in the record, I have determined that the Tusayan proposal is deeply controversial, is opposed by local and national communities, would stress local and park infrastructure, and have untold impacts to the surrounding tribal and national park lands,” wrote Heather Provencio, the forest supervisor, to the Tusayan mayor.

She continued: “For example, the current freshwater conveyance system serving the park is marginally capable of meeting their needs and could not absorb the additional needs of the connected development. Water would then have to be secured from other sources potentially impacting the park.”

The town of Tusayan applied to build roads and utility lines through public land that would allow for housing and commercial development of private land within the forest.

The proposal’s scoping report gathered public comments and divided them into issues. One third of the comments raised concerns that the development would threaten water supplies.

Ethiopia Drought Assistance
The U.S. Agency for International Development sent a team of a dozen disaster response experts to Ethiopia to help with the drought. The team will assist with nutrition, water, sanitation, and hygiene.

The agency is also spending $US 4 million on drought-tolerant maize and wheat seeds that will be distributed to more than 226,000 households.

Flint Bill Still on Hold
Republican lawmakers are still preventing a vote on $US 220 million in federal aid for Flint and other cities with outdated water pipes.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-NV), who placed a hold on the bill, says that federal aid is not needed because Michigan has a budget surplus that could be tapped instead.

“What’s really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states, and trying to sneak it through the Senate without proper debate and amendment,” Lee said in a statement. “I respectfully object.”

The Detroit News reports that a vote is expected this week on the bill, which has bipartisan support.

Chesapeake Bay
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a legal challenge to the pollution limits that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set for the Chesapeake Bay, the Bay Journal reports.

Water Infrastructure Funding
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), one of the chief advocates in Congress for water systems, introduced a bill that authorizes significant funding increases and new regulatory requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The AQUA Act authorizes an increase in spending for a drinking water infrastructure loan program. Funding would rise annually, to $US 5.5 billion by 2021, which is a seven-fold increase over the 2016 level. The bill authorizes $US 100 million per year in grants to replace lead service lines, and $US 50 million per year for drought planning. Even if the bill were to pass, Congress would have to appropriate the funds, which it is not required to do.

The bill also requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the source, extent, and effects of pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

A summary of each section of the bill is here.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill to spur private investment in water systems. The bill would remove the cap on private activity bonds, which allow private companies to issue bonds with tax-free interest. The bonds are a means of reducing the cost of borrowing for infrastructure projects. Menendez introduced a similar bill two years ago that did not move out of committee.

Studies and Reports

Mosul Dam Failure Risk
The U.S. Embassy in Iraq published a fact sheet on the Mosul Dam, the safety of which has deteriorated to the point where the embassy, out of caution, is issuing disaster preparation notices. The consequences of a dam failure, according to the embassy, are not good:

“The approximately 500,000 to 1.47 million Iraqis residing along the Tigris River in areas at highest risk from the projected flood wave probably would not survive its impact unless they evacuated the flood zone. A majority of Baghdad’s 6 million residents also probably would be adversely affected — experiencing dislocation, increased health hazards, limited to no mobility, and losses of homes, buildings, and services.”

The Iraqi government finalized a contract with an Italian company last week to repair the dam.

Navajo Aquifer
Water levels in the Navajo Aquifer in northeastern Arizona declined an average of 51 feet in the last half century in the aquifer’s confined portions, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

On the Radar

Colorado River Basin Flow
The inflow to Lake Powell is expected to be 5.7 million acre-feet, about 80 percent of the historical average, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s March forecast. The projected inflow dropped by 1 million acre-feet in the last month because of a hot, dry February.

The center also unveiled a new data dashboard with information on precipitation, snowpack, soil moisture, and tributary flows.

Next Flint Hearing
The House Oversight Committee will hold its second hearing on the Flint scandal on March 15. Susan Hedmon, the former EPA regional administrator, is listed as a witness as is Darnell Early, former emergency manager of Flint.

Protecting Aquatic Life Report
The U.S. Geological Survey and the EPA published a draft report on setting minimum river flow standards that protect fish and other aquatic life. The report is meant to guide public agencies and is not a rule. Public comments are being accepted through May 2 at www.regulations.gov, referencing docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2015-0335.

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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