Federal Water Tap, February 20: Oroville Dam Emergency Refocuses Attention on U.S. Water Infrastructure

The Rundown

Regulators order an independent board to review Oroville Dam engineering while the White House offers emergency aid. The Senate confirms Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator. Despite continuing to assert that clean water is important, President Trump signs a bill repealing an Obama administration rule protecting streams from coal mining waste. Legal experts issue opinions in two U.S. Supreme Court water lawsuits. The Justice Department reaches a settlement with mining companies to clean up uranium pollution on Navajo lands. The Army Corps withdraws its environmental review of the Dakota Access pipeline. And lastly, some good news for groundwater in two regions.

“The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress. Dams, bridges, roads, and all ports around the county have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the president’s vision for an overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.” — Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, on the Oroville Dam emergency.

By the Numbers

94: Number of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation lands that will be cleaned up in a $US 600 million settlement with two mining companies. The federal government will contribute more than half the funds, some $US 335 million. (U.S. Justice Department)

$US 39.6 million: Funding allocated since 2011 to the development of a national water census. The U.S. Geological Survey, in charge of the census, needs to determine how much funding is needed to complete the census and set measureable goals, according to an inspector general report. Otherwise, Congress cannot evaluate the program’s progress. (Interior Department Office of the Inspector General)

275 feet: Height of a dam proposed for Nevada and Placer counties, in California. The reservoir would have an 110,000 acre-foot storage capacity. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

News Briefs

FERC Orders Oroville Review Board
Federal energy regulators ordered the California Department of Water Resources to convene an independent board to evaluate the department’s response to the damaged auxiliary spillway that threatened to partially collapse on February 12.

The board, which will comprise five engineers from different disciplines related to dam design, must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The board will assess the causes of the spillway damage and review any repairs proposed by California officials.

President Trump, meanwhile, issued an emergency declaration for three counties downstream of the dam. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a response and allocate resources.

Senate Confirms Pruitt As EPA Administrator
By a 52 to 46 vote, the Senate confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Two Democrats — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — voted for Pruitt. A third Democrat, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, abstained. One Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, voted against Pruitt, and Arizona’s John McCain abstained.

Trump was pleased with the confirmation vote, said Sarah Sanders, White House deputy press secretary.

“Administrator Pruitt will be essential in the president’s plan to restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and water clean and safe. In this administration, the EPA will no longer spend unnecessary taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control, anti-energy agenda,” Sanders said.

Now that Pruitt is confirmed, EPA officials have been told to expect a series of executive orders directed at the agency, Reuters reports citing two unnamed EPA officials who met with members of the Trump administration.

Army Corps Terminates Dakota Access Environmental Review
In response to Trump’s January 24 executive order, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is terminating its review of the Dakota Access pipeline. In the last days of the Obama administration, Army Corps leaders said that they would conduct an environmental impact statement for the contested pipeline route beneath Lake Oahe.

Trump Comments on Regulation
At his press conference last week Trump defended his reductive executive order issued on January 30 to cut two regulations for every new regulation. Despite his actions (see below), he continued to maintain that environmental protection was important to him. His quote in full, transcribed by the Washington Post:

“We’ve issued a game-changing new rule that says for each one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated. Makes sense. Nobody’s ever seen regulations like we have. You go to other countries and you look at indexes they have and you say ‘Let me see your regulations’ and they’re a fraction, just a tiny fraction of what we have. And I want regulations because I want safety, I want environmental – all environmental situations to be taken properly care of. It’s very important to me. But you don’t need four or five or six regulations to take care of the same thing.”

Trump Signs Repeal of Stream Protection Rule
The Republican-led Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Obama administration’s rule that put limits on dumping coal waste into streams. In signing the bill, which prohibits the Department of Interior from developing a similar rule, Trump cited his campaign pledge to help the coal industry. He called the rule an “overly burdensome regulation.”

The rule’s costs to industry, however, were minimal and the rule that was adopted was far less strict than it could have been. The Interior Department’s regulatory review found that industry’s cost of compliance would have been $US 81 million per year, or less than 0.1 percent of industry revenue.

Studies and Reports

Supreme Court Case I: Texas v New Mexico
A legal expert appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to oversee a lawsuit between Texas and New Mexico over the Rio Grande recommended that the case not be dismissed, as New Mexico requested.

Texas claims that groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is diminishing the flow of water into the Rio Grande, which is affecting Texas water rights that were secured in an interstate compact signed in 1938.

Supreme Court Case II: Florida v Georgia
Georgia is the clear winner here. The special master noted in his report that the Army Corps, which operates five reservoirs in the basin, is not named as a party to the lawsuit. The special master is also skeptical that Florida’s claims of ecological damage in the Apalachicola Bay could be remedied by a court order to allocate water between the states. He recommended that the Supreme Court deny Florida’s request.

The special master repeatedly urged the states to reach a settlement. Though they entered into mediation, no resolution occurred. The special master recognized the gulf between the two sides, writing that the states, in summaries they submitted of the negotiations, seemed to be “describing entirely different mediations.”

Attention will now shift to the Army Corps, which is updating the basin’s reservoir operation manual. The public review period for the final environmental impact statement ended on February 1. The updated manual will authorize Georgia by 2050 to more than double its withdrawals from Lake Lanier, the basin’s most contested Army Corps reservoir.

Microplastic Pollution in the Great Lakes
The U.S. and Canadian governments should develop a coordinated plan to prevent small bits of plastic from polluting the Great Lakes, according to a report from the International Joint Commission, a panel that monitors waters shared by the two countries.

Key to the plan is analyzing existing municipal, state, provincial, and industry programs to determine the most effective practices. Better scientific knowledge is part of the solution as well. Governments need to know the source of microplastics and devise a common definition, the report states.

Groundwater Success Stories
Not all is gloom in the realm of groundwater. The U.S. Geological Survey has found rising aquifer levels in a number of regions. The math is simple: less pumping generally translates into higher water levels. That is the case in the Upper Floridan Aquifer along Georgia’s southern coast. Groundwater pumping in Brunswick and Glynn counties is down by more than half since a 1980 peak. The USGS also found a widespread decline in salt concentrations in groundwater in Brunswick between 2014 and 2015. Extensive pumping draws salt water inland.

Similarly, subsidence rates in the Houston-Galveston region have slowed in the last 15 years in response to state-mandated pumping restrictions. In a handful of monitoring wells soil compaction has reversed.

On the Radar

New EPA Administrator Addresses Employees
Scott Pruitt’s welcome speech will take place on February 21 at noon Eastern.

USDA Agriculture Outlook Forum
With a theme on the future of agriculture, the annual forum will be held February 23 and 24 in Arlington, Virginia. One panel will discuss water and climate change.

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.