Federal Water Tap, September 19: Senate Passes Water Resources Development Act

The Rundown

The Senate passes a big water infrastructure bill that addresses sewer overflows, lead pipes, Great Lakes, and more. The State Department completes an environmental review for a desalinated water pipeline from Mexico to the San Diego area. Energy regulators issue a draft review of a Virginia natural gas pipeline. The U.S. Geological Survey finds that small pieces of plastic are widespread in Great Lakes tributary rivers. Meanwhile, Canadian and U.S. officials begin a year-long public consultation on Great Lakes water quality.

“Once again Congress has voted with broad bipartisan support for another major infrastructure bill.” — Joint statement from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) on the Senate’s approval of a water resources bill.

By the Numbers

20 million: Gallons per day of desalinated water that a water district in Southern California is considering buying from a desalination plant in Mexico. (U.S. State Department)

$US 1.8 billion: Money authorized in the Water Resources Development Act, which passed the Senate, for curbing sewer overflows. (Senate)

$US 415 million: Money authorized in the Water Resources Development Act for Lake Tahoe restoration. Potential projects include stormwater management, trout recovery, watercraft inspections to control invasive species, and other programs. (Senate)

25: Miles of canal in Arizona’s San Carlos Irrigation Project that the Bureau of Reclamation will line with concrete. Lining the canal keeps the water from soaking into the ground. (Bureau of Reclamation)

News Briefs

Senate Approves Water Bill
The $US 10.6 billion Water Resources Development Act, a keystone piece of water infrastructure legislation, passed the Senate 95 to 3. It faces a tough road to becoming law, though. The House must pass its own version, which will likely authorize far less spending. Then lawmakers must negotiate a compromise. There are only a few weeks of legislating left until the election.

Traditionally the bill authorizes U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction — projects such as dam repairs, levees, locks, ecosystem restoration, and dredging at ports and harbors. This bill authorizes final feasibility studies for 30 such projects.

With recent attention on water pollution and old infrastructure, however, this edition went farther. It authorizes $US 1.8 billion for sewer overflows. It authorizes $US 415 million for Lake Tahoe restoration, and $US 1.5 billion for Great Lakes restoration. It provides $US 100 million in grants to remove lead pipes in Flint, and $US 300 million to remove lead pipes nationwide. That provision prohibits funds from being used for partial lead line replacements, which increase lead in home drinking water.

The bill allocates $US 70 million to a new water loan program called WIFIA, and the bill requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study water affordability in poor communities.

For most of the projects, the bill is just a first step. In future spending bills, Congress must appropriate the money.

Natural Gas Pipeline Review
Federal energy regulators released a draft environmental review of a 301-mile natural gas pipeline that will run from West Virginia to southern Virginia. As it traverses the region’s karst terrain, the Mountain Valley pipeline will cross the Jefferson National Forest and 986 waterbodies, which require a permit from the Army Corps. The review recommends identifying all wells, springs, and drinking water sources along the pipeline route before construction. The pipeline has drawn strong opposition from mountain communities in Virginia.

Public comments are being accepted through December 22.

Studies and Reports

Tiny Bits of Plastic in the Great Lakes
Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey tested 29 Great Lakes tributary rivers for bits of plastic. In a telling signal of our times, they found plastic in all samples. The most common plastics found were fibers, which come from diapers, cigarette butts, and synthetic materials used in clothing. The highest concentrations were found in the Huron River, near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Total plastic concentrations are even higher than the study indicates. The researchers looked only for participles larger than 0.3 millimeters, roughly the size of a ballpoint pen. Most microplastics in water are one-third that size, notes Austin Baldwin, the study’s lead author.

Mexico-to-California Desalination Project
The U.S. State Department completed an environmental review of a proposed desalination pipeline. The pipeline would transport water from a Mexican facility to a water district in San Diego County, California. Because the pipeline would cross an international border, Otay Water District had to file an application with the State Department, which handles these matters.

The State Department is accepting public comments on the proposal through October 14. Comments can be submitted via www.regulations.gov under docket number DOS-2016-0061.

After reviewing the comments, the department will decide whether it is in the “national interest” to approve the pipeline. That means considering environmental, foreign policy, cultural, and economic factors. Construction of the desalination plant in Rosarito, Mexico does not depend on Otay’s participation.

Dakota Access Pipeline: The Role of Federal Permits
The Congressional Research Service issued a three-page summary of the federal role in permitting interstate oil pipelines such as the now-delayed Dakota Access pipeline.

On the Radar

Great Lakes Water Quality Evaluated
From October 4 to 6, leaders from Canada and the United States will meet in Toronto for a status report on the health of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Public Forum, held every three years, is free and open to the public. Register here. The forum will also be streamed live on the internet. The tentative agenda lists local, tribal, provincial, and federal officials that have been invited to speak.

The forum begins a year-long process in which officials will consult the public about the success and failure of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Signed in 2012, the agreement addresses pollution, groundwater, invasive species, and climate change.

Lake Erie Phosphorus Pollution Assessment
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory board will hold public teleconferences on October 12 and 13 to discuss the agency’s targets for reducing nutrient pollution in Lake Erie. Too much phosphorus, a plant vitamin, in the lake has led to record-breaking algae blooms in recent years. The agency recommends a 40 percent reduction from 2008 levels.

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.