Federal Water Tap, November 21: Prospects Dim for Water Infrastructure Bill

The Rundown

House and Senate seem no closer on multibillion-dollar water resources bill. Army Corps extends Dakota Access pipeline review. House committee approves a California water deal and a tribal water rights settlement. Green groups and pro-coal lawmakers criticize final environmental review of rule to protect streams from coal mining. At the same time, the bottom drops out of U.S. coal production. Frustrated by EPA delay, congressman who represents Flint files legislation to revise the Lead and Copper Rule. An EPA advisory committee, meanwhile, holds a public meeting to discuss lead in drinking water. And lastly, the EPA publishes a list of drinking water contaminants that are candidates for federal regulations.

“Flint’s going to get done, that’s the bottom line. It will either be in the [continuing resolution] or the omnibus.” — Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) claiming that even if a water infrastructure bill does not pass Flint aid will most likely be included in a budget bill that is due by December 9. The House and Senate remain at odds over the Water Resources Development Act, a bill that authorizes port, dam, and levee project as well as billions for drinking water systems. The Senate’s version includes $US 220 million for Flint’s lead crisis.

By the Numbers

20 percent: Decline in U.S. coal production in the first 10 months of 2016 compared to last year. In 2015, coal production fell 10 percent, to its lowest level since 1986. (U.S. Energy Information Administration)

109: Number of unregulated chemical (97) and microbial (12) contaminants found in drinking water systems that are candidates for federal regulation. Three pesticides that were on the draft list were removed because they are not widely found in drinking water. The EPA is required to update the list every five years and choose at least five contaminants for deeper analysis. In the end, very few contaminants end up with regulations. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

750,000 acre-feet: Surface water rights granted to the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana in a settlement approved last week by a House committee. (Natural Resources Committee)

News Briefs

Dakota Access Update
The Army Corps completed its initial review of the pipeline’s Missouri River crossing and determined that more review is necessary. The corps says it is talking with the Standing Rock Sioux about whether an easement for the pipeline to cross federal land could be granted and also protect water sources from pollution.

The corps did not respond to Circle of Blue’s questions about the legal nature of these “reviews”, whether they are being conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act or whether they are a negotiation with the Standing Rock Sioux.

California Water Bill Passes House Committee
No, not a drought bill. But consequential nonetheless. The House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill that withdraws the federal government from some water management duties in California’s Central Valley.

The bill supports an agreement signed in September 2015 between the United States government and Westlands Water District, a power-player in California water politics and one of the state’s largest irrigation districts. Westlands would take on the responsibility of building a farmland drainage system, estimated to cost more than $US 1 billion, and retire 100,000 acres of land. In return, the district’s debt for the cost of building the federal canal system that delivers water would be forgiven. That present value of that debt is $US 295 million. The district’s water contracts would then be permanent.

The committee’s markup memo lays out the background.

Tribal Water Rights Settlement
The House Natural Resources Committee also passed a bill that approves a water rights settlement with the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. The Obama administration is in favor of the deal, and the Senate approved it in September.

The settlement affirms the tribe’s rights to 750,000 acre-feet of water from six drainage basins and nearly all the groundwater beneath the reservation. It includes at least 65,000 acre-feet of water per year from three federal canals or reservoirs. It also authorizes $US 422 million in federal funds for to repair, maintain, or construct the facilities that will deliver the water to the reservation.

Because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is dragging its feet on issuing new drinking water regulations for lead, others want to prod the agency to action.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) introduced a bill that outlines a series of rule revisions that the EPA would have to implement within nine months. Revisions include: lowering the lead level at which utilities must act, uniform sampling methods, and requiring utilities to mark the location and number of lead service lines.

Having been introduced so late in the session, the bill has little chance of passing. The EPA says that it will publish a draft Lead and Copper Rule revision in early 2017, the first major revision since 1991. See below for more details on the agency’s process.

Studies and Reports

Final Review of Stream Protection Rule
An Interior Department agency published the final environmental review of a rule for protecting streams from coal mining and coal waste. The Office of Surface Mining’s stream protection rule strengthens requirements for pre-mining data collection and monitoring of streams and groundwater during operations but it would weaken other areas. It prohibits mining through streams or through land within 100 feet of streams unless regulators approve an exception. Dumping mine waste into this buffer zone, however, is not allowed.

Green groups were hoping for a stronger buffer zone rule and are advocating for provisions in the final rule for citizen lawsuits as a means of keeping pressure on state and federal regulators. “The devil will be in the details,” Neil Gormley, lead attorney for Earthjustice, told Circle of Blue. “That’s why we’re waiting to see the final rule.”

Mountaintop removal projects are still permitted as long as they do not damage waterways and the land is reforested.

The Office of Surface Mining considered, but did not adopt, a rule that would have prohibited all mining and waste disposal within 100 feet of a stream. The office found that these prohibitions — which would strand 86 percent of surface coal reserves — were “so substantial that they ran counter to the mandate…to balance the need for energy with the protection of the environment.”

Los Angeles Basin Water Study
The Los Angeles Basin faces a highly variable water future, according to a Bureau of Reclamation study of water supply and demand. Nearly three-fifths of the basin’s water supply is currently imported from other watersheds: the Colorado, Owens Valley, and Sacramento-San Joaquin.

More than three dozen local, state, and federal agencies collaborated on the study, which notes a decrease in imported water over the coming decades and more opportunities to redirect local rainfall into underground storage.

On the Radar

EPA Advisory Committee Discusses Lead and Copper Rule
On December 6 and 7, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council will hold a public meeting in Washington, D.C. The council, which advises the EPA on drinking water policy, will discuss recommendations for revising the Lead and Copper Rule. A teleconference option is available.

Thanks to the Flint scandal, the revision is in the spotlight. On October 26, the EPA published a summary of the options it is considering. The right course of action is, in fact, disputed ground. Even within the advisory council there are dissenting views about what the EPA should do and how strong the regulations should be.

The EPA expects a draft rule in 2017.

EPA Chief Speaks to Journalists
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will give the lunch talk at the National Press Club today, November 21, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. The talk will be livestreamed.

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.