Federal Water Tap, July 3: EPA, Army Corps Move to Repeal Clean Water Rule

The Rundown

Revoking the Clean Water Rule is the first step in a two-stage process to replace the Obama-era legal definition. A House budget subcommittee keeps a rural water infrastructure grant program mostly intact. Wildlife agencies clear a path for construction of a highly controversial pair of water supply tunnels in California. President Trump nominates an Arizona water official to lead the Bureau of Reclamation. The EPA begins risk reviews of 10 chemicals under a new chemical safety law. Academic and federal scientists offer a new perspective on drought. And lastly, the EPA is looking for science advisers.

“Ecosystem responses to drought remain largely absent from many drought-planning efforts, resulting in debates that often pit the water needs of humans against the needs of ecosystems. Meanwhile, rapidly expanding human populations and anthropogenic climate change increase pressure on ecological water supplies and alter ecosystems in ways that can increase their vulnerability to drought, with real consequences for human communities through loss of ecosystem services.” — Academic and federal scientists writing in a research journal that a more comprehensive response to low-water circumstances is necessary. It’s not fish vs. people or forests vs. fields, they say.

By the Numbers

10: Number of chemicals, some of which frequently show up in Superfund cleanups of contaminated groundwater, that will undergo a risk analysis. The analysis is the first phase of a chemical safety law passed a little more than a year ago. EPA documents detail the scope of the reviews. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

9,400: Estimated number of one-way barge trips to transport construction material for the proposed tunnels beneath California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A fish and wildlife assessment of the project runs more than 1,270 pages and is chock-a-block with such details. (National Marine Fisheries Service)

News Briefs

Agencies Move to Repeal Water Rule
Revoking an “overreaching” Obama-era rule that defined which water bodies are regulated by the Clean Water Act is a pillar of Trump administration environmental policy. As a candidate, the president campaigned against it and, once in office, he ordered that it be overturned. The Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have now begun the formal process to repeal the Clean Water Rule.

In practice, little will change. Due to a federal court stay, neither agency has enforced the rule since October 2015, less than two months after it was finalized.

The announcement is the first step in what the administration envisions will be a two-stage process. The second stage is proposing a new rule that, in all likelihood, will be less encompassing. Both stages must go through a public comment and review period.

Tossing out the old rule will not be easy, according to environmental lawyers. Though some criteria are debatably arbitrary — such as the distance between water bodies, which is used to determine jurisdiction — the administration must contend with the large body of science that agency staff wielded to justify their argument. As always, expect lawsuits.

House (Mostly) Preserves Rural Water Program
The Trump administration said eliminate it, but members of the House Appropriations subcommittee rejected the White House’s proposal. They instead offered a budget bill that mostly preserves the infrastructure loan and grant program for rural water utilities.

The bill allocates $US 473 million to the program. Even though the sum is $US 96 million less than the program’s current spending, Mike Keegan, a policy analyst with the National Rural Water Association, views the bill as a promising starting point.

The level “is only the starting level for the appropriations process that will almost certainly be impacted by a future budget deal which could result in the allocation of additional discretionary funding,” Keegan wrote in an email to Circle of Blue. “When Congress and possibility the White House finalize a budget deal we are optimistic the level will increase.”

House members signaled their interest in the program in April when at least 62 Republicans and Democrats sent a letter of support to the Appropriations Committee.

Wildlife Agencies OK California Water Tunnels
Two federal wildlife agencies say that construction of a highly controversial pair of water supply tunnels in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will not cause salmon, steelhead, and other endangered or threatened species to go extinct nor will it destroy habitat necessary for their recovery. Construction will alter habitat and harm fish, but not eliminate them.

The “no jeopardy” finding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service is necessary for the 37-mile-long, 40-foot-tall tunnels to proceed. Estimated construction cost of the megaproject, which will deliver water to farms and cities in southern California, is at least $US 15 billion. The construction timeframe is 2018 to 2030.

The biological opinion is a favorable result for tunnel proponents but it is by no means the last word. It assesses construction of the tunnels, not their operation nor the construction of at least three associated facilities. The agencies will issue separate biological opinions for those elements of the project. A biological opinion for operations will determine whether there are any restrictions on water diversions through the tunnels due to endangered species.

Then there are the inevitable legal challenges that will seek to quash the project through the courts. The first lawsuit against the no jeopardy finding has already been filed.

Bureau of Reclamation Nominee
Looking to fill a key water policy position in a depleted government, President Trump nominated an Arizona water official to be the head of the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that oversees hundreds of dams and thousands of miles of canals in the western United States.

Brenda 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.

Reclamation plays a large role in the Colorado River Basin — it controls delivery contracts for river water supplied to Arizona, California, and Nevada.

Studies and Reports

What Is Drought? The Latest in a Series of Precision Definitions
Drought, like a die, is a many-sided thing. How many sides? Depends on who you ask. But a group of academic and federal scientists are suggesting making room for one more.

Current drought definitions, they say, writing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, do not adequately account for environmental changes that have subsequent effects on ecology and people.

Lake Erie Algae Forecast
NOAA issued one of its last Lake Erie algae forecasts of the season before it starts measuring actual algae in the water. All signs point to a bloom of above-average intensity. The final seasonal forecast is on July 13.

Harmful Algal Bloom Report
The Congressional Research Service published a summary report on harmful algal bloom legislation that Congress is considering.

Speaking of CRS Reports
A House Appropriations Committee included a clause in a budget bill (see page 20) that would make Congressional Research Reports available to the public. CRS reports, meant for the eyes of Congress, have long been acquired and made public by third parties such as the Federation of American Scientists. Soon, the middleman may no longer be needed.

On the Radar

EPA Seeks Science Advisers
The EPA is accepting nominations for its main science advisory board and six science committees, including one for drinking water. To nominate an expert for the science advisory board, click here; for drinking water committee, click here. Self-nominations are accepted. Nominations for the positions, which carry a three-year term, are due July 27, 2017.

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.