Federal Water Tap, December 26: Lake Powell Pipeline Permitting Inches Forward

The Rundown

Federal energy regulators approve the first step in a proposed Colorado River pipeline in Utah. An Arizona representative introduces an Indian water rights settlement. The House proposes additional money for water systems damaged by hurricanes. FEMA misses its power restoration target in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Trump administration publishes an “America First” national security strategy and focuses attention on critical minerals. The EPA starts to test for perfluorinated chemicals in Michigan, while the new leader of the EPA’s Great Lakes regional office draws the ire of green groups. And lastly, dry weather is expected in California and the Southwest through the winter.

“Climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system. U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests.” — Passage from the Trump administration’s national security strategy.

By the Numbers

61 percent: Power generation restored in the U.S. Virgin Islands as of December 16. The goal was to have 90 percent of power back by December 25. (FEMA)

$165 million: Funding in a supplemental emergency aid bill to rebuild drinking water, sewer, and garbage systems in states affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The bill passed the House on December 21.

News Briefs

Lake Powell Pipeline Inches Ahead
A 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to southwest Utah cleared a first permitting step when federal energy regulators accepted the state’s application to build the water delivery system. The next phase will be environmental studies of the pipeline’s threat to land, air, and water.

The scope of those studies is still to be determined. Utah filed its permit application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because the state considers the pipeline a hydropower project, due to the six generating stations that will take advantage of elevation drops along the route. FERC, however, said it is still deciding whether its review will include the pipelines that connect the power-generating stations, which are clearly its jurisdiction.

If FERC excludes the pipeline from its review, other federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management would be responsible for issuing rights of way. That would add additional steps and cost to Utah’s plan.

The pipeline, estimated to cost more than $1 billion, would deliver Colorado River water to a corner of Utah that uses more water per person than almost any place in the United States. Residents of Washington County, the terminus of the pipeline, used an average of 158 gallons per person per day in 2015 for indoor and outdoor purposes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Leader of EPA Great Lakes Office Has Home Construction Background
The Trump administration named Cathy Stepp the head of EPA Region 5, the division that oversees the Great Lakes states.

Stepp has been criticized by environmental groups for lacking a science background and selectively enforcing statutes. She was the director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources where her tenure coincided with a decline in fines for environmental violations, the Chicago Tribune reports. Stepp also ordered climate change information removed from the department’s website. Business groups appreciate the former homebuilder’s hands-off approach.

Critical Minerals
There are valuable rocks in the U.S. that, for the reliability of computer and defense systems, need to be mined at home instead of abroad. That’s the gist of a Trump administration order on “critical” minerals.

The order requires the Interior Department to submit, within 60 days, a list of critical minerals, the attributes of which are somewhat circular. The order says that critical minerals are important to national and economic security, have easily disrupted supply chains, and are used in products essential to national security.

After identifying the indispensable rocks, government agencies are to speed up the leasing and licensing processes, in line with the president’s orders on faster permitting.

The U.S. Geological Survey already runs a critical minerals program, listing 23 essentials in an update earlier this month, including gallium, a soft metal that is a component of the aerospace and telecommunications industries, and vanadium, used in large-scale batteries.

Already in the American West, major companies are joining wildcat miners to search for exploitable lithium deposits, High Country News reports. Lithium ion batteries are under the hood of the Tesla Model S while the world’s largest such battery is now feeding the electric grid in Australia.

Arizona Tribal Water Rights Settlement
A bill from Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) would approve a water rights settlement with the Hualapai that gives the tribe use of 4,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River and authorizes $134 million for a system to deliver the water. The tribe’s reservation abuts the river in northern Arizona.

A companion bill with identical funding and water rights was introduced in the Senate earlier this month.

Studies and Reports

EPA Looks at Perfluorinated Chemicals in Michigan
The EPA will begin sampling groundwater and drinking water wells in western Michigan, MLive reports. Kent County and state officials are tracing perfluorinated compounds in water that are linked to a tannery waste dump.

Changing Approach to Clean Water Infrastructure
The EPA and the Justice Department reached an agreement with Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on a path for reducing pollution discharges during heavy rains. The consent decree is notable because of the large role that swales, wetlands, and other green infrastructure could play. The EPA helped Lancaster evaluate the benefits of using natural systems to soak up rain that would overwhelm its combined sewer system.

On the Radar

Drought Watch
It’s been a dry month in California and much of the Colorado and Rio Grande basins. NOAA’s winter forecast show drought developing or persisting in much of the Southwest, from Texas to southern California. In the short term these areas are expected to be drier and warmer than normal.

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.