Federal Water Tap, May 23: U.S. Senators Worry About Local Water Problems

The Rundown

Senator letters support the idea that politics and water are local. A House committee introduces a big water resources bill. The EPA revises the drinking water health standard for a nonstick chemical. The Supreme Court rejects an Exxon groundwater contamination appeal. The House Natural Resources Committee discusses three water settlements. The USGS studies fracking water use. And finally, thanks to record temperatures, snowpack is melting quickly.

“Water quality is an extremely important issue for Alaskans. Accordingly, we ask that you and other officials from the Department of State raise these concerns with the governments of Canada and British Columbia. Doing so will help us gain a better understanding of the new development taking place across our border, ensure that appropriate environmental safeguards are in place for that development, and keep Alaskan water pristine and productive.” — Alaska’s congressional delegation asking Secretary of State John Kerry to protect Southeast Alaska’s rivers and salmon runs from potentially destructive mining upstream in British Columbia.

By the Numbers

12: Consecutive months that the monthly global warmest temperature record has been broken. (NOAA)

56 percent: Share of streamflow in the four states of the Upper Colorado River Basin that originated as groundwater. (U.S. Geological Survey)

$US 236 million: Fine levied against Exxon for groundwater contamination in New Hampshire because of a gasoline additive. Exxon appealed the case, and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the appeal. (Reuters)

$US 10.7 million: Funding available for research on regional water solutions for agriculture that focus on reuse, management, and environmental benefits. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

News Briefs

Alaska Senators Worry about Canadian Mines
Alaska’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry to note its concern about gold and copper mines proposed in British Columbia. The representatives — Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Rep. Don Young — worry that mine pollution will tarnish streams that flow into Southeast Alaska, home to some of the world’s richest salmon runs.

The group asked Kerry to raise the issue with Canadian counterparts. The Alaskans want Canadian environmental reviews for the mines to have a formal consultation with American agencies and to consider the collective risk of mine development — much like green groups in the United States urged the Army Corps of Engineers to do for the array of coal export proposals in Washington and Oregon.

“Like most Alaskans, we strongly support responsible mining, including mines in Southeast Alaska,” they wrote. “But Alaskans need to have every confidence that mining activity in Canada is carried out just as safely as it is in our state. Yet, today, that confidence does not exist.”

Southeastern Senators Concerned about Rivers Too
Senators from Alabama and Florida sent a letter to the Senate Republican leadership to ask for help. The senators — Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson of Florida and Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby of Alabama — want the longstanding problem of water allocation in river basins shared with Georgia to be resolved.

The best way to do this, the senators argue, is by interstate compact, like so many of the western states. But that is unlikely at this point, they concede. They want allocation decisions out of the courts — all three states are in lawsuits over water use — and the Army Corps, which operates the basin reservoirs and serves as a sort of river master.

“We remain open to any real policy option that helps compel the governors — including ours — to the table,” they wrote.

EPA Health Advisory for Nonstick Chemical
The perfluorinated chemicals PFOA and PFOS are used to make water-repellent carpets, clothing, and other goods. With prolonged, high exposure, they are also linked to kidney, prostate, and other cancers in humans.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a revised health advisory for the two compounds, significantly lowering the recommended exposure in drinking water from 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) for PFOA and 0.2 ppb for PFOS to 0.07 ppb combined. A health advisory is not an enforceable regulation. It is meant to guide water utility decisions. Public health groups argued for an even lower level.

PFOS was phased out of production in 2001 and PFOA was eliminated from U.S. manufacturing by the end of 2015. Yet the chemicals linger. Many industrial towns have discovered high concentrations — Hoosick Falls, New York; North Bennington, Vermont; Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Gold King Mine Spill Payments
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a bill to require the EPA to pay the roughly $US 5 million in outstanding legal claims related to the Gold King mine spill. The spill happened in August 2015 in southwestern Colorado. Congress will appropriate no additional money to pay the claims. The payments must be carved from the EPA budget.

The bill also requires a long-term water quality monitoring program for the Animas River, into which the mine waste flowed.

Studies and Reports

Early Snowmelt in American West
Except for Colorado and southern Wyoming, mountain peaks are quickly losing their white caps, according to the National Water and Climate Center. Snowpack in the Cascades and the northern Rockies is about half of normal for this time of year. Why? Temperatures in this region over the last 60 days have been between 2 degrees and 8 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual.

It’s not just the American West. Snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere in April was the lowest in 50 years of record keeping, according to NOAA data. Why? Again, the flaming temperatures. Globally, it was the hottest April since scientists began keeping track, back in 1880. It was the twelfth consecutive month that the monthly global temperature record was broken.

Water Use for Fracking
The U.S. Geological Survey is beginning a three-phase study to refine its methods for estimating water used for fracking and other unconventional oil and gas production.

Phase one, which began this year, uses the Williston Basin of North Dakota and the Upper Great Plains as a pilot site. The analysis will look at the entire life of unconventional oil and gas, from extraction and refinement to delivery and disposal. Indirect use — for commercial development in surrounding towns or crew camps — will also be measured. From the pilot site, the USGS will develop a statistical model to apply to other U.S. hydrocarbon basins.

Water Data Dashboard
NOAA built a data dashboard for flood and drought forecasts. The dashboard includes real-time data on river flows as well as historic data.

On the Radar

Water Resources Development Act
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released a draft Water Resources Development Act on Friday. The committee plans to introduce an official bill this week and approve it at a May 25 meeting.

The Water Resources Development Act is a major source of funding for the dams, levees, and ports overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved its version of the bill on April 28. The House version is much smaller — 100 pages compared to the Senate’s 271. The House bill does not provide money for WIFIA, a newish infrastructure financing program for large water projects, nor does it contain $US 530 million to repair high-hazard dams that the Senate included.

Water Settlements Hearing — California Central Valley and Blackfeet Tribe
On May 24, the House Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony about three water settlements. Two of the deals involve billions of dollars and relate to the drainage of pollution runoff from farm districts in California’s Central Valley. Congress must approve the deals.

The Obama administration signed a deal with Westlands Water District, a huge player in California water politics, in September 2015 that would relieve the district of $US 295 million owed to the federal treasury. The deal also transfers the burden of building a drainage system from the Interior Department to Westlands. The federal government estimates a drainage system would cost $US 3.8 billion. Westlands will also retire 100,000 acres of land.

The Blackfeet settlement, on the other hand, is a water rights deal. It gives the tribe rights to 750,000 acre-feet of surface water from the Milk and St. Mary river basins and nearly all the groundwater beneath the reservation, located east of Glacier National Park, in Montana. The settlement also promises $US 420 million for a drinking water system and other water infrastructure for the reservation as long as the tribe drops outstanding legal claims against the federal government for allowing non-tribal users to divert water and for not maintaining a reservation irrigation project.

The settlement has a long history. In 1979, lawsuits were filed in state and federal court to sort out the tribe’s water rights. Those cases were stayed until January 2017 so that the parties could negotiate a settlement. The deadline is approaching. The Montana Legislature approved the settlement in 2009, and federal legislation was first introduced in 2010, passage having been delayed because of budget bickering. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved the settlement in February.

California Drought Bill
This carousel is whirling again. After the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on several water bills last week — including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s behemoth for California — a California Democrat in the House introduced a bill with similar language. The debate about maximizing water pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is still the big sticking point.

Waters of the United States Hearing
Also on May 24, a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee will hold a hearing on the EPA’s waters of the United States rule, which defines the scope of the Clean Water Act.

Hurricane Forecasting Hearing
On May 25, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on hurricane forecasting.

Lake Erie Phosphorus Meeting
The EPA’s science advisory board will discuss Lake Erie phosphorus targets at a June 21-22 meeting in Chicago. The Canadian and U.S. governments agreed in February 2016 to reduce phosphorus entering the western basin of Lake Erie by 40 percent. High phosphorus levels contribute to algae blooms. The meeting is open to the public.

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.