Federal Water Tap, May 16: Army Corps Denies Permit for Washington Coal Export Terminal

The Rundown

Because of tribal fishing rights, the Army Corps denies a permit for a proposed coal export terminal in Washington state. Bills on California drought, Colorado River, and western water issues are before the Senate Energy Committee. The Senate, meanwhile, passed a water and energy spending bill. The State Department is reviewing a desalinated water pipeline from Mexico, while energy regulators will assess a water pipeline from Lake Powell. Wildlife officials identify critical habitat for a threatened frog species in the Pacific Northwest.

“I have thoroughly reviewed thousands of pages of submittals from the Lummi Nation and Pacific International Holdings. I have also reviewed my staff’s determination that the Gateway Pacific Terminal would have a greater than de minimis impact on the Lummi Nation’s [usual and accustomed] rights, and I have determined the project is not permittable as currently proposed.” — Seattle District Commander Col. John Buck in a statement explaining why the Army Corps of Engineers rejected a coal export terminal permit in Washington state.

By the Numbers

$US 37.5 billion: Water and energy appropriations bill passed by the Senate. (Senate Appropriations Committee)

$US 128 million: Aid to Ethiopia for coping with a historic drought. (U.S. Agency for International Development)

48 percent: Share of U.S. wetlands that are in “good” ecological condition. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

News Briefs

Coal Export Terminal Rejected
The Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for a coal export terminal near Bellingham, Washington, because the terminal’s wharf and causeway would block access to the customary fishing grounds of the Lummi Indian Nation. The Lummi’s fishing rights are protected by federal treaty.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal would have been the largest coal export facility in the United States, capable of shipping 54 million tons of coal per year, primarily to Asian markets. Just a few years ago, the Pacific Northwest was viewed by coal companies as an export hub. Now, all but one of the six terminals proposed for the region have been denied permits, cancelled, or postponed.

Affordability Briefing
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) held a water affordability briefing on May 10. In February, Rep. Fudge introduced a bill to establish a pilot program for helping poor people with water and sewer bills. The federal government runs an assistance program for energy bills but not for water.

Rep. Fudge’s bill has nine Democratic co-sponsors but has not been heard in committee.

New Endangered Species Act Battle in Pacific Northwest
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final rule designating 65,000 acres of critical habitat in Oregon and Washington for the Oregon spotted frog, a threatened species. Critical habitat is the geographic area that is necessary for the survival of the species. The designation triggers additional scrutiny of development proposals and management actions. Here are maps of the critical habitat for the Oregon spotted frog.

Degradation of the frog’s habitat spurred a lawsuit in central Oregon by environmental groups that want the Bureau of Reclamation to change how it manages water flows in the Deschutes River. More than half of the critical habitat is in the Deschutes River Basin.

Tribes and Clean Water Act
Indian tribes, by the nature of their existence, have the authority to oversee Clean Water Act regulations within their reservations, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency legal interpretation. The ruling makes it easier for tribes to take control of regulatory programs within their borders.

Studies and Reports

Importing Desalinated Water from Mexico
The Otay Water District, near San Diego, plans to build a four-mile pipeline to deliver water from a yet-to-be-built desalination facility in Mexico. Because it crosses an international boundary, the pipeline requires a presidential permit. The U.S. State Department completed a draft environmental review of the pipeline corridor.

Public comments are being accepted through June 27, and can be sent to Lisa.coburn-boyd@otaywater.gov.

Ballast Water Technology Review
The U.S. Coast Guard determined that technology required for strengthening ballast water discharge standards “cannot be practicably implemented.” The Coast Guard came to its conclusion while taking into consideration economic cost for the shipping industry, environmental benefits, and the compatibility of new technology with current systems. Ballast water is used to stabilize a ship and it is a convenient transport system for invasive species.

On the Radar

Senate Water Bill Hearing
Once again western senators will try to move a water bill through Congress.

On May 17, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold a hearing on five water and energy bills. Three are important to watch.

First is Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s attempt to bridge ideological divides. The California Democrat introduced a 184-page bill that offers hundreds of millions of dollars for desalination, dams, water recycling, and ecosystems, in addition to money for studies and research.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced a less expansive bill that nonetheless attempts to do a lot. The bill would change how reservoirs are managed, to better align water releases with the knowledge from satellite weather forecasting. The language is similar to that in the Water Resources Development Act, which already passed a different Senate committee.

Sen. Flake’s 142-page bill also would narrow the scope of U.S. Forest Service environmental reviews under certain circumstances: if the project’s purpose is to reduce fire risk, address invasive grasses or insect outbreaks, increase water supplies, or protect a municipal water source. In these cases, the review could analyze only two options: the proposed action and doing nothing. Most reviews analyze a handful of options. The bill also includes provisions for speeding up the review of reservoir projects, and it asserts state power over groundwater rights. The latter item drew attention when the U.S. Forest Service issued a groundwater policy in 2014 — then retracted it the next year — that some states interpreted as crossing into their legal authority.

The third bill is from Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). It proposes $US 50 million for water conservation projects in the Colorado River Basin that will put more water into Lake Mead. Sen. Reid’s bill allows the money to be spent until it’s gone, with no need to reauthorize the program.

Lake Powell Pipeline: The Utah Division of Water Resources filed for a federal permit to build a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, a big reservoir on the Colorado River, to towns in southwest Utah.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will evaluate the proposal because the pipeline will generate a bit of hydroelectric power, owing to drops in elevation along its route.

A draft environmental review is scheduled to be completed by September 2017 with the final version ready by April 2018.

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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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). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton
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