Federal Water Tap, January 9: Interior Department Sets Timetable for California’s Delta Tunnels Review

The Rundown

The Interior Department directs its agencies to complete final reviews of a pair of tunnels through California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The special master in the Florida v. Georgia water lawsuit dredges up an old and outrageous idea. The EPA revises criteria for designating Superfund sites and publishes a $US 1 billion plan to clean up the Portland, Oregon harbor. The EPA also bins a groundwater cleanup rule for in-situ uranium mines and releases a report on metals contamination from the Gold King mine blowout. The Bureau of Reclamation analyzes a $US 308 million water supply project for New Mexico pueblos. And lastly, USAID will release on January 12 its annual water, sanitation, hygiene report.

“The order is a nice indication that the federal government takes this last quarter of a billion we spent trying to get this thing permitted seriously. And it’s sort of like a road map for the Trump transition team and the Interior (Department) to look to. Obviously, at the end of the day, if they follow that road map it’s up to them.” — Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a large water supplier, commenting on the Interior Department’s timetable for reviewing a pair of tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

By the Numbers

January 26: Deadline for Florida and Georgia to negotiate a settlement to a river-sharing lawsuit filed in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court-appointed lawyer who is overseeing the case also revived an old and expensive solution that is a legal minefield: importing water from another river basin. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

$US 1 billion: Estimated cost of dredging and scrubbing Portland’s Willamette River of PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, and other contaminants. The cleanup of 10 miles of the river’s industrial harbor is expected to take 13 years. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

540: Tons of metals — mainly iron and aluminum but also lead, copper, arsenic, and zinc — that entered the Animas River over nine hours in August 2015 after the Gold King mine blowout in southwestern Colorado. The amount equaled four to seven days of the mine’s typical releases into the river. (EPA)

News Briefs

California Water Supply Order
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell laid the groundwork for federal review of a long-debated California water project: building a pair of 40-foot-diameter tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will issue a draft biological opinion this month and a final opinion by April. The biological opinion states whether the project will harm endangered species, in this case the Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and Chinook salmon, three fish species. The Bureau of Reclamation issued a final environmental review of the $US 15.5 billion project in December.

The secretary also directed the department to implement a Delta smelt survival strategy by increasing water flows through the imperiled waterway.

EPA Updates Criteria for Designating Superfund Sites
The underground volatilization of chemicals, largely from soil or groundwater into basements, will now be taken into account when considering sites for Superfund designation, according to an EPA final rule. Volatilization happens when a chemical becomes a vapor.

Uranium Rule Withdrawn
The EPA put on hold a rule requiring groundwater monitoring and cleanup at in-situ uranium mines, the Associated Press reports. The agency will revise and resubmit its proposal, offering more leeway for states to set site-specific standards. In-situ mining pumps a solution underground to dissolve uranium and draw it to the surface.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), newly elected chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the withdrawal “the correct decision.” Barrasso’s home state, Wyoming, is the country’s top uranium producer.

Studies and Reports

Gold King Mine Analysis
Ninety percent of the metals released from the Gold King mine blowout settled into sediment on the bottom of the Animas River, according to an EPA report that assessed water quality before, during, and after the August 2015 event that turned the river the color of mustard.

River water quality returned to pre-blowout conditions after two weeks, but storms and snowmelt that stir up sediment have occasionally lifted metal concentrations above state and tribal standards. As noted in the By the Numbers section, mine waste constantly drains into southwestern Colorado’s rivers. In April 2016, the EPA proposed listing Gold King and 47 other mines in the region as a Superfund site.

Here’s a link to the report’s executive summary.

New Mexico Water Supply System Reviewed
The Bureau of Reclamation issued a draft environmental review of a regional water supply project in northern New Mexico. The project, part of a tribal water rights settlement, will deliver water from the Rio Grande to four pueblos and other customers in Santa Fe County. The estimated cost to design, build, and operate the system for 50 years is $US 308 million.

Public comments are being accepted through February 27 and can be emailed to PojoaqueBasinEIS@usbr.gov.

On the Radar

USAID Water Report Release This Week
On January 12 at the National Press Club, U.S. Agency for International Development officials will release an annual report on the agency’s water, sanitation, and hygiene program. If you want to attend, register by January 9 via the above link.

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.