Federal Water Tap, July 17: House Budget Committee Plans 6.5 Percent EPA Cut

The Rundown

In addition to the budget bill, the House passes controversial California water legislation while the Senate considers a big energy bill with water-related provisions. A Defense Department spending bill includes a human health study for firefighting chemicals in drinking water. Federal wildlife agencies find zero invasive carp near Lake Michigan during a two-week search. House members urge the president to begin Columbia River Treaty negotiations. The Army Corps approves raising the height of a Colorado dam that stores Colorado River Basin water. Severe drought spreads in the northern Great Plains. A Senate committee holds a hearing for the nominee to lead the Bureau of Reclamation. The Army Corps and the EPA recalculate the benefits of the Clean Water Rule. And lastly, the House endorses a national monument for the deadly 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse.

“I urge my Republican colleagues to reconsider and ask themselves if we can do better to the EPA. These cuts are just, in my opinion, too deep and unnecessary.” — Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, who said that she cannot support in its current form a House budget bill that levels a 6.5 percent cut to the agency.

By the Numbers

$US 528 million: Cut to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by a House Appropriations subcommittee. In relative terms, that is a 6.5 percent decrease from 2017. The bill maintains Great Lakes restoration spending at $US 300 million, but a sewer loan fund is funded at roughly 20 percent less than this year. The budget, however, is not final and there will be negotiations throughout the summer as committee spending bills are reconciled and the parties work on a budget agreement. (House Appropriations)

0: Number of Asian or silver carp found in the Calumet River during an intensive two-week trawling. The search was initiated by the discovery, on June 22, of one of the invasive fish below a dam that sits 9 miles from Lake Michigan. Preventing the species from entering the Great Lakes system is a state and federal goal. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

70 percent: Reduction in salt loads to the Dolores River, a Colorado River tributary, since 1993, when salt-removal facilities began operating. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Columbia River Treaty Update
In late June, a group of seven House Democrats and Republicans from Oregon and Washington sent a letter to the president and the secretary of state asking them to begin as soon as possible treaty negotiations over the use of Columbia River dams.

Circle of Blue asked the State Department about the status of the treaty negotiations. “We correspond with our Canadian counterparts regarding this matter, but the Canadian government has not yet agreed to begin formal negotiations,” said Frankie Sturm, a spokesman.

Sturm confirmed that Brian Doherty, appointed by President Obama in 2015 as the chief negotiator, still holds that position.

Signed in 1964, the treaty largely governs the use of Columbia River Basin dams in Canada for holding back flood waters and generating electricity. Renegotiation of the treaty will take into account new hydropower benefit calculations and probably include provisions related to salmon and ecosystems.

California Water Bill Passes House
House Republicans moved again to get more water south of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, approving the GROW Act.

A day earlier, California Gov. Jerry Brown wrote a letter to Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, in opposition to the bill. His main concern: that the bill strips state authority over water.

That’s ironic because a section in the bill includes water rights language from Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO), which prevents the transfer of water rights to the federal government as a condition of renewing a permit for using federal land, such as for ski resorts or cattle grazing. The justification for that section: state control over water rights.

Energy Bill Moves Quickly In Senate
Senate leaders resurrected energy legislation that nearly passed in the last session of Congress. The 892-page bill, similar to its predecessor, was sent directly to the Senate floor, without committee hearings. It authorizes

  • A water-energy nexus office that will coordinate federal actions and carry out research;
  • A water supply and fish passage program in the Yakima River Basin of Washington;
  • The EPA’s labeling program for water-efficient products, called WaterSense;
  • A grant program to upgrade energy systems in order to save water;
  • The state of Wyoming to tap the lower reaches of Fontenelle Reservoir, which are currently unavailable for use. The reservoir stores water from the Colorado River Basin.

The bill also offers a statement of belief, of sorts, called a “sense of Congress.” It does this for hydropower, stating that the country should “increase substantially the capacity and generation of clean, renewable hydropower resources that would improve environmental quality in the United States.” The bill also defines hydropower as renewable. A reminder here that the reservoirs behind dams do release methane, a greenhouse gas, and hydropower is renewable only as long as rivers run.

Defense Bill Includes Firefighting Chemical Study
The Defense Department spending bill that the House passed on Friday includes amendments that require the department to study the health effects of exposure to firefighting chemicals used on military bases. At hundreds of bases around the country, the chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — have been found in groundwater and drinking water wells.

Drinking Water Roundtable
Democrats on the Senate Committee for Environment and Public Works hosted a roundtable discussion on America’s drinking water.

Studies and Reports

Army Corps Approves Colorado Dam Expansion
The Army Corps approved a permit for Denver Water, the city water utility, to triple the volume of Gross Reservoir by increasing the dam’s height by 131 feet. (All documents related to the permit are here.) The reservoir is filled with water diverted from the Colorado River basin, via a tunnel blasted through the Rockies.

For background on the matter, see this Circle of Blue story from August 2016.

Speaking of Reservoir Expansions, In California…
The Bureau of Reclamation released an updated draft environmental impact statement for the proposed expansion of Los Vaqueros, a reservoir east of Oakland. Raising the height of the dam would increase the reservoir’s capacity by more than 70 percent.

Agencies Cut Estimated Benefits of Clean Water Rule
The Army Corps and the EPA slashed the benefits associated with a controversial rule that clarifies the scope of the Clean Water Act, Greenwire reports. The new analysis throws out studies that were used to justify the Clean Water Rule, an Obama administration artifact that the Trump administration is seeking to repeal and rewrite more narrowly. The rule is not being enforced now due to lawsuits.

On the Radar

Senate Committee Hearing for Reclamation Commissioner
On July 20, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Brenda Burman, selected to lead the Bureau of Reclamation, and other nominees for the Energy and Interior departments. Burman is the director of water strategy at the Salt River Project, which supplies water and power to the Phoenix area. She served at Reclamation in the George W. Bush administration.

Plains Drought Watch
Dry conditions in the northern Great Plains deepened last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Parts of eastern Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota rated as “severe” drought, the second-worst ranking.

To aid ranchers hurt by the drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is allowing cattle to graze grasslands that were designated as conservation land.

House Passes Dam Disaster Memorial Bill
When the St. Francis Dam, outside of Los Angeles, broke apart on March 12, 1928, at least 400 people died in the deluge.

Rep. Stephen Knight (R-CA) introduced a bill to set aside 440 acres of public land for a national monument to the disaster. The House passed the measure on July 11.

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.