Federal Water Tap, May 31: House Energy Bill Becomes Trojan Horse for California Drought Legislation

The Rundown

House Republicans slip California water bill into energy policy act. They also pass a bill loosening clean water rules in the name of Zika virus protection. An Indian water rights settlement is introduced in the Senate. A Senate Democrat wants to tax offshore corporate profits and use the money to fund water infrastructure. A CDC agency issues health warning for residents in a Pennsylvania town with groundwater contamination. No change in Endangered Species Act status for Pacific Northwest salmon.

“We have been suffering over these last few years, and what it has done is devastated our communities. We have unemployment numbers reaching as high as 30 and 40 percent. We see numbers even in some smaller communities as high as 50 percent. To see these things happen in our communities is a total tragedy, and it doesn’t have to happen. All we need is some common-sense legislation. We have tried reaching out. We have passed legislation out of the House a few different times. We have negotiated and tried to get somewhere, but we weren’t able to do it. So finding another way to get this onto our senators’ desks so that they can actually take some action and get it to the president’s desk is of the utmost importance.” — Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) speaking on the House floor in defense of adding his California water bill to an energy policy bill. His Democratic colleagues lambasted the move as “an add-on” that will “gut environmental protections.”

By the Numbers

$US 35 billion: Money for water and sewer infrastructure that Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) hopes to raise per year from taxing offshore corporate profits. The WATER Act includes provisions to assist poor communities and allow federal funds to be used to replace household line water lines. It also requires the EPA to establish a grant program for helping homeowners repair, replace, or upgrade septic systems. (Rep. John Conyers)

$US 1.5 billion: Cost of repairing, modernizing, and restoring the ecology around the Flathead irrigation project, in western Montana. The expenditures are included in a bill to approve a water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The bill also quantifies tribal water rights from a federal dam. (Sen. John Tester)

27: Number of household wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania, in which concentrations of arsenic, copper, lithium, sodium, and other chemicals pose a health hazard. Sixty-four wells were tested. An additional 17 wells had methane levels that risk fire or explosion. Dimock is located in the heart of shale gas country in Pennsylvania and the source of groundwater contamination in town wells has been a matter of debate since 2008. This report, which used EPA data from 2012, makes no claim on the source of the chemicals. Here is a link to the full report, a large pdf file of 28 megabytes. (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)

News Briefs

Energy Bill as Trojan Horse
As efforts to pass a stand-alone bill have faltered, California House Republicans are trying a new tactic to send more water to Central Valley farmers and cut funding for river restoration: inserting the language into bills that have broader support.

House representatives added 806 pages of amendments to the Energy Policy Modernization Act last week, including the entire 170-page text of Rep. David Valadao’s drought bill, the Western Water and American Food Security Act, which passed the House in July 2015. The Obama administration said last summer that it would veto the measure.

House and Senate leadership appointed a committee to work out a compromise bill. The original Senate bill has largely bipartisan support, though green groups take issue with some of the hydropower provisions. The test for negotiators is how to handle the interloping text.

Meanwhile, the House energy and water appropriations act eliminates funding for the San Joaquin River restoration, for removing federally owned or operated dams, and for implementing the new interpretation of the scope of the Clean Water Act, a target for rural lawmakers. It also includes measures to increase water delivered to farmers in California’s Central Valley.

The Obama administration does not approve of these stipulations. “The legislation includes highly problematic ideological provisions, including provisions that threaten to undermine our ability to protect a resource that is essential to America’s health: clean water,” it said in a statement.

Using Zika Threat to Undo Pesticide Protection
The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act was introduced in February 2015 by a Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH). The bill went nowhere.

Renamed the Zika Vector Control Act, however, the bill was passed last week by the House. Zika is the mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects. No changes were made to the text of the bill, which eliminates the need for a permit to spray pesticides near regulated waterways.

The Obama administration strongly criticized the switcheroo. “Rebranding legislation that removes important Clean Water Act protections for public health and water quality is not an appropriate avenue for addressing the serious threat to the nation that the Zika virus poses,” it said in a statement.

House Water Development Bill Passes Committee
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a $US 5 billion spending package for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A Senate committee passed a much broader Water Resources Development Act in April. The two bills must eventually be reconciled.

National Estuary Program Reauthorized
President Obama signed a bill to extend the National Estuary Program, which supports ecosystem restoration and water quality in 28 coastal water bodies. The bill authorizes $US 132 million over five years.

Studies and Reports

No Change in Pacific Salmon Status
There will be no change in the Endangered Species Act status of the 28 salmon and steelhead fish species that live in the rivers and streams of California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, according to a NOAA Fisheries review. The agency is required by law to do the reviews every five years.

Raising Idaho Dam on Pause
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the costs of increasing the height of an Idaho dam exceed the benefits, Capital Press reports. As a result, the $US 1.2 billion expansion of Arrowrock Dam, on the Boise River, is “currently in hiatus,” according to Lt. Col Timothy Vail, commander of the Corps’ Walla Walla District.

On the Radar

Advisory Council Meetings
The expert group that advises the Department of Health and Human Services on antibiotic-resistant bacteria will meet June 21-22 in Washington, D.C. The meeting is open to the public and will be available via teleconference and webcast.

The National Infrastructure Advisory Council will meet on June 24 in Los Angeles. The meeting, which is open to the public, includes discussion of a report on water sector resilience to natural disaster and cyberattack.

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.

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