Federal Water Tap, August 21: Undermanned EPA Delays Lead and Copper Rule — Again

The Rundown

Draft lead rule is now expected in January. The Justice Department settles a closely watched Clean Water Act lawsuit against a California farmer. Trump infrastructure executive order turns its back to the rising oceans, while the EPA will review an Obama-era water pollution standard for fossil fuel power plants. Thanks to a wet winter and conservation, there will be no shortage declaration in the lower Colorado River Basin next year. The federal government and local water agencies have competing preferences in a draft environmental review of a California reservoir. A New Mexico senator says that the American West needs to cooperate as water supplies diminish. The National Park Service, in a reversal, will allow the sale of bottled water in national parks. And lastly, happy Eclipse Day.

“The needs I am talking about are not big new dams and pipelines. The era of guaranteed big federal investment in new water projects is largely over. The budget pressures and environmental costs are just too large. So we need to focus primarily on maintaining the water infrastructure we have. And I hold out hope — and am pushing for — a federal infrastructure package that would help address these needs, especially in the West.” — Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) speaking on August 15 at the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute annual conference. Udall reckoned that cooperation over diminishing water supplies “will be the only successful strategy.”

By the Numbers

$US 1.1 million: Settlement in closely watched Clean Water Act case involving a California farmer who plowed through wetlands in his fields. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had sought $US 2.8 million in fines and millions in mitigation actions from John Duarte, whose legal trouble became a rallying cause for property rights advocates. (Justice Department)

1,085 feet: Forecasted elevation of Lake Mead in January 2018, which puts the big reservoir 10 feet above the level at which a shortage would be triggered in the lower Colorado River Basin. (Bureau of Reclamation)

News Briefs

Lead and Copper Rule Delay
Even after the Flint scandal reawakened the nation to the dangers posed by lead drinking water pipes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency appears to be in no rush to strengthen federal health standards.

Years after Flint declared a state of emergency in December 2015, the agency is delaying publication of rules that could prevent lead poisoning. The agency now expects a draft rule to limit the risks from lead and copper in drinking water to be published in January 2018. That is six months later than the timeline the EPA announced a year ago.

When asked for an explanation, the EPA provided few answers. “EPA’s semiannual regulatory agenda reflects the Trump administration’s commitment to refocusing the agency on our core mission of protecting the nation’s air, water, and land while reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens on Americans,” Enesta Jones, EPA spokeswoman, wrote in an email to Circle of Blue.

EPA to Revoke Obama Power Plant Water Pollution Rule
It’s an escalation of sorts. After announcing in May that the agency would delay enforcement of stricter water pollution standards for fossil fuel power plants, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt went a step further. The agency will now open a rulemaking to revise the discharge standards for arsenic, mercury, selenium, and other toxic metals, Pruitt says.

National Park Service Reverses Bottled Water Ban
A 2011 policy allowed individual parks to ban the sale of bottled water. The NPS reversed that decision on Wednesday in order to “expand hydration options.”

Only 23 parks — five percent of the total — had bans in place.

Trump Signs Infrastructure Order
The order puts deadlines to the federal environmental permitting process. A process called “one federal decision” consolidates all permitting reviews within a single decision document. The order requires that the average time to process environmental reviews for major projects be no more than two years.

Trump’s decree goes further, turning his back to the ocean by cancelling an Obama order that required sea-level rise to be evaluated when the federal government builds in a flood zone.

Studies and Reports

No Colorado River Shortage Next Year
Because of a wet winter and ongoing conservation efforts, water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell rose enough that a first-ever shortage declaration will not occur, according to a Bureau of Reclamation analysis.

Reclamation projects lake levels in January 2018 to be 1,085 feet, some 10 feet higher than the trigger point for a shortage.

Take the projections with grains of salt, though. Last August, Reclamation projected lake levels in July 2017 to be 1,065 feet. The actual elevation after the above-average runoff and water banking: 1,075 feet. Concerted conservation efforts in Arizona, California, and Nevada have helped boost the reservoir.

Environmental Review of Proposed California Reservoir
State and federal agencies evaluated four design options for Sites reservoir, north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but, unusually, did not select a preferred option.

Instead, they identified a design favored by local water agencies and one preferred by the government agencies. The water agency option maximizes water delivers to agriculture but has the lowest total benefits when accounting for environmental flows, wildlife refuges, and hydropower.

The government’s preference scores the highest on net benefits.

For the local option to go forward the Interior secretary must approve a waiver.

Both reservoir options would hold 1.8 million acre-feet, which would make Sites the seventh-largest reservoir in California by capacity. Construction requires two major dams taller than 290 feet and up to nine dams between 40 feet and 130 feet in height. The estimated construction cost is $US 5.2 billion.

Sites is one of 12 water storage projects in California that have applied for $US 2.7 billion in state funding.

Public comments on the draft review are due by November 13 and can be emailed to EIR-EIS-Comments@SitesProject.org.

CDC Wants Legionnaires’ Advice
Advice, that is on how to get building owners to follow accepted practices on preventing Legionnaires’ disease. A form of pneumonia, Legionnaires’ disease is spread when people breathe contaminated water droplets.

Comments are due by October 17. They should be submitted at www.regulations.gov under docket number CDC-2017-0069.

On the Radar

Eclipse Day
Not a water event, per se. But if you’re chasing the moon shadow today, be patient in traffic jams. And stay hydrated.

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.