Federal Water Tap, October 24: Interior Department Supports Klamath Dam Removal

The Rundown

The Interior secretary sends letter of support to hydropower regulators for Klamath dam removal. The White House joins with local agencies to offer or recommend more than $US 800 million for Puget Sound ecosystems. A government watchdog reviews water affordability in 10 cities with shrinking populations and old water systems. An EPA internal investigation found a delayed agency response to the Flint lead crisis. The Bureau of Reclamation wants to put a low dam across Montana’s Yellowstone River. A manmade flood in the Colorado River Delta in 2014 had lasting ecosystem benefits. And lastly, the EPA agrees to a deadline for regulating perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient, in drinking water.

“Dam removal can rewrite a painful chapter in our history, and it can be done in a manner that protects the many interests in the basin.” — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, arguing that taking down four Klamath River dams is in the public interest.

By the Numbers

$US 292 million: Best estimate of the cost of removing four Klamath River dams and reseeding the bare earth. According to federal government analysis, the cost range is $US 238 million to $US 493 million. (Bureau of Reclamation)

14: Number of midsize and large cities in both Michigan and Ohio with declining populations, the states with the most such cities in the nation. See the Studies and Reports section below for a study on water infrastructure in shrinking cities. (Government Accountability Office)

1.78: Degrees Fahrenheit that the average global temperature for the first nine months of 2016 was above the 20th-century average. This year is a near lock to be the warmest on record, beating last year’s mark. (NOAA)

News Briefs

Another Step Forward for Klamath Dam Removal
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signaled her support for removing four dams on the Klamath River, in Californian and Oregon. The secretary’s approval is necessary for the project to move forward. Federal energy regulators are assessing the removal application, which was filed in September by PacifiCorp, the dam owner. Assuming all permits are acquired, removal is supposed to take place in 2020.

Dollars for Puget Sound
The Obama administration announced a federal Puget Sound task force to write a restoration plan and coordinate its implementation. More than $US 800 million in state and federal money is recommended to improve the sound’s health. Those projects include fish passage at dams on tributary rivers and a $US 451 million coastal restoration plan.

On September 28, the House authorized the restoration plan as part of the Water Resources Development Act. The Senate and House are now in negotiation on the final bill. But remember: authorization does not mean appropriation, which is the process of spending money. Appropriation would happen in future spending bills.

Studies and Reports

Shrinking Cities Have Big Water System Needs
Prompted by a congressmen’s concerned about potential water crises in cities with similar demographics as Flint, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of the government, weighed in on water affordability and infrastructure investment in shrinking cities.

The GAO reviewed water and sewer system needs for 10 midsize or large cities whose population shrank by 20 percent or more between 1980 and 2010. Midsized cities have more than 50,000 people, and large cities more than 100,000. They are most numerous in the Midwest and Northeast, where the loss of manufacturing jobs has hit hardest.

All the cities used rate increases to cover the loss of revenue from declining water sales. This downward spiral of revenue decreases and rate increases has two drawbacks: one, it can result in affordability problems for the poorest, and two, it makes it difficult to address urgent needs for repairs. Utility officials in Youngstown, Ohio, said that almost all of the city’s 740 miles of water mains need to be replaced, at an estimated cost of $US 390 million.

The report was requested by two congressman with a long history as advocates of drinking water infrastructure: Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). They co-sponsored legislation this session to increase subsidized loans for drinking water and sewer infrastructure and prioritize aid to poor communities. Neither bill has passed, though Congress is considering an increase in the loan fund as part of the Water Resources Development Act negotiations.

“I thank the GAO team for this detailed report,” Tonko said in a statement. “It illustrates what we have seen for years – legacy cities need additional assistance, and our existing federal programs are not designed to address their structural and demographic challenges.”

Flood Gave Life to Colorado River Delta
On March 23, 2014, the gates at Morelos Dam, on the U.S.-Mexico border were opened wide. For the next eight weeks, water surged into the dry bed of the Colorado River, wetting its delta like a spring flood. A pulse flow, authorities called it. River communities called it a blessing.

A scientific assessment of the effects of the pulse flow was made public last week. This study looked at the ecosystem response after two growing seasons, through December 2015. According to Karl Flessa, a University of Arizona professor and chief scientist for monitoring the pulse flow, the delta will see lasting benefits from the relatively brief flush of water. Cottonwoods and willows that germinated during the flood now stand several feet taller than the scientists studying them.

Flessa takes another lesson from the event too. Because a limited amount of water is available, large-scale restoration projects like this need to be managed, not left to nature. Invasive plants must be cleared out, meanders need to be connected to the main channel, and ground might need to be cleared and seeded by hand.

“It’s not enough anymore to dump water into the riverbed,” Flessa told Circle of Blue. “Active management is key to success.”

EPA Dragged Feet on Flint Response
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office had enough information and the authority to intervene in Flint’s lead contamination crisis seven months before it did so, according to an internal watchdog’s investigation.

Agency officials did not take action because of deference to Michigan authorities, even though they had the legal authority to take emergency action, according to the report. Because the EPA rarely issues emergency orders against cities, the Office of the Inspector General recommends that agency officials have better training in the nuances of the law so that they understand when intervention is permitted and necessary. The EPA agreed with the recommendation.

Agencies Support Yellowstone River Dam
The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommend a $US 57 million dam across the Yellowstone River, in Montana, and a fish bypass to help the endangered pallid sturgeon reach spawning grounds, according to a final environmental review. The dam and bypass would replace an existing rock weir, which raises the river high enough to divert it into irrigation canals.

Green groups, however, pan the proposal, the Associated Press reports. They say that the weir should be removed and pumps used instead. A federal judge that blocked the plan last year because it was not sufficiently studied must approve the new assessment. Though hatcheries produce thousands of juvenile sturgeon, only 100 wild adults are estimated to be alive.

How Los Angeles Refills Its Groundwater
The U.S. Geological Survey published a study of groundwater recharge in the Los Angeles Basin. The USGS calls the study “the most sophisticated analysis to date” of how water percolates into the basin’s aquifers. Surprisingly, lawn watering and landscaping accounted for more than half of recharge.

On the Radar

EPA Agrees to Perchlorate Regulation Deadline
After missing a previous deadline, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed in court to a new timetable for regulating perchlorate in drinking water.

Perchlorate is used in rocket fuel and explosives. The EPA will issue a draft regulation by October 31, 2018 and a final rule by December 19, 2019, according to a legal settlement with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Dam Database Update
The National Inventory of Dams, the foremost database on the nation’s roughly 87,000 dams taller than six feet, will be updated by the end of the month, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the site. The database is updated every two years.

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.