Federal Water Tap, September 6: President Obama Signs Paris Agreement, Pledges Salton Sea Help

The Rundown

The United States joins a global climate agreement, while the secretary of state speaks bluntly in India about energy choices. President Obama promises federal attention to the shrinking Salton Sea. The EPA’s internal watchdog will investigate the agency’s oversight of state drinking water programs, while an EPA regional office tells New York City to eliminate sewer backups into basements. The FDA’s ban on antimicrobial ingredients in soaps is a win for aquatic life and wastewater treatment. Drought task force publishes progress report. The U.S. Geological Survey documents groundwater declines on the mid-Atlantic coast. Congress returns from summer break with several water bills on the table. Alaska set a state record in 2015 for lowest streamflow.

“We are here together because we believe that for all the challenges that we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other challenge.” — President Obama, standing with China’s president Xi Jinping, after both countries signed the Paris Agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

“In partnership with California, we’re going to reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it is too late, and that’s going to help a lot of folks all across the West.” — President Obama pledging to put federal resources toward mending the Salton Sea, a shrinking lake in the Southern California desert.

By the Numbers

2,846: Number of “confirmed” sewer backups in New York City in 2015, a 38 percent decrease since 2012. Backups result in raw sewage in basements and streets. Residents filed complaints last year about more than 8,000 additional backups whose cause was not confirmed by the city. The EPA regional office ordered New York to eliminate backups within seven years. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

$US 5 million: Annual funding over five years for replacing school drinking water fountains that have high lead levels. The bill, which has not been acted on, was introduced in the House by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL).

News Briefs

Paris Agreement Signed
The world’s two largest carbon polluters signed the Paris Agreement together in a ceremony before the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. The agreement comes into force after it is signed by 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions. China and the United States together account for 40 percent.

Meanwhile, leading Republicans in Congress retrenched their position that climate change is not a concern. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said that Congress will not pass laws to support the agreement:

“This latest announcement is the president attempting to once again give the international community the appearance that he can go around Congress in order to achieve his unpopular and widely rejected climate agenda for his legacy.”

Obama in Tahoe
Before signing the agreement, President Obama announced conservation initiatives during a speech at Lake Tahoe.

One initiative seeks to encourage more private sector and philanthropic participation in conservation. Changes in policy, finance, and technology are needed, the administration argues.

A second initiative will draw federal agencies into closer collaboration with California counterparts to address the Salton Sea. The desert lake is shrinking because of reduced inflows from farm drainage and its bed laced with salts and pesticides. The Department of Energy announced it will seek 100 megawatts to 250 megawatts of geothermal power from the Salton Sea region.

Kerry Speaks Bluntly About Climate
No pressure, India. Just the world’s future.

Sectary of State John Kerry presented stark choices during a speech at the India Institute of Technology in Delhi, saying that how the world’s second-most populous country powers its industries and lights its homes will directly influence global affairs in the coming decades.

“The solution to the problem of climate change is energy policy,” Kerry said. “The choices you make about energy policy will determine whether or not we as a planet survive and overcome this hurdle that has been built because of the ways we adopted to provide power to communities over history from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution without completely understanding what the consequences of those sources were.”

If all India chooses is coal, the path of the past, to supply electricity for 300 million of its citizens without power, then “we are all in trouble,” Kerry warned.

FDA Bans Antibacterial Soaps
The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of antibacterial ingredients in household soaps and body washes because they proved ineffective. The rule does not apply to hand sanitizers that are used without water or to antiseptics in professional first aid equipment.

Comments submitted to the agency from environmental groups and water utilities supported the ban. They referred to studies showing that triclosan, a common antiseptic, harms aquatic life and interferes with the sewage treatment process by crippling the microbes that digest waste.

Studies and Reports

Groundwater Declines: An East Coast Problem Too
An aquifer system that extends through six states, from the North Carolina coast to eastern Long Island, faces an array of challenges, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

If current pumping rates continue, the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Aquifer could experience land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and decreased discharge to streams. The biggest problem spot is in southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, where pumping on one side of the border affects groundwater resources on the other side. This cross-border influence makes the problem more difficult to address because groundwater is not jointly managed between states.

Is the EPA Policing State Drinking Water Authorities?
Call it the Flint Effect. Noted failures in the federal-state regulatory relationship led to inaction as the city’s lead crisis worsened. Now, scrutiny is expanding. The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General will investigate the agency’s oversight of state drinking water programs. Investigators will examine how state authorities monitor, report, and sample for contaminants in drinking water.

Drought Response Update
The National Drought Resilience Partnership, a collection of federal agencies, published a progress report on federal drought response. In March, President Obama announced a drought “action plan” with six goals: data collection, communicating risk, local planning, federal coordination, market-based responses, and water efficiency.

2015 Streamflow Data
Wet in the Great Plains and Midwest, dry in the West. The U.S. Geological Survey released streamflow data for the 2015 water year, which runs from October 1, 2014, to September 30, 2015. Alaska set a state record for lowest stream flow in 86 years of measurements.

Kill the Grasshoppers?
A plant inspection agency will prepare an environmental review of a program that kills grasshoppers that feed on rangeland. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service noted that pesticide use — one option under evaluation — could affect water quality.

Public comments are being accepted through October 17 and can be submitted via this link.

On the Radar

Congress Returns. Busy Weeks Ahead
It’s a sprint finish for Congress, and several water bills await action. The House will meet through September 30. The Senate goes a little longer, until October 7. But that’s all the legislating until after the election.

Potential actions include:

  • An energy policy bill that could change hydropower licensing procedures. A conference committee is resolving differences between the House and Senate versions. The committee’s September 8 meeting will be webcast.
  • A water resources development bill that could authorize as much as $US 10 billion for flood control, dam renovation, and port projects, as well as providing, for the first time in this particular bill, money for drinking water improvements. The expansion into drinking water, prompted by the Flint lead crisis, is slowing the bill’s passage because it brings more committees, interests, and dollars into play.
  • A California drought package. There have been hearings but little consensus between the parties on how to move a western water bill through Congress.

Northwest Hydropower Deadline
Federal agencies that operate 14 dams in the Columbia River Basin have until 2021 to complete a new fish-protection plan and environmental review, Capital Press reports.

A U.S. district court judge ruled in May that the federal government’s plan to keep the battery of dams from killing salmon was inadequate.

EPA Seeks Water Quality Experts
The EPA is seeking nominations for a science advisory panel. The panel will review the agency’s revision of water quality standards aimed at protecting aquatic life.

Nominations are due by September 20 and can be submitted using this form.

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.