Federal Water Tap, March 20: Trump Budget Eliminates Rural Water Infrastructure Program

The Rundown

Water and climate programs are among many targets for cuts or elimination. Flint gets a portion of the $US 100 million in federal grants that Congress approved for replacing lead pipes. Louisiana representative questions federal infrastructure spending priorities. New York senators submit legislation to require the EPA to regulate four chemicals in drinking water. Alabama groundwater contamination site is removed from Superfund. USGS review finds few ecological studies follow dam removal. EPA hosts webinars on river and lake pollution and public education for lead.

“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward: We’re not spending money on that anymore; we consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.” – Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, responding to a question at a March 16 press briefing about why the Trump administration proposed cutting federal funding for climate change research.

“Somehow, we have regressed in the nation to a situation where we prefer to spend billions of dollars after a disaster rather than millions of dollars before.” — Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) speaking to the National Waterways Conference Legislative Summit. Graves is a member of the House committee that oversees water infrastructure. He convened a hearing on March 9 on the federal role in water infrastructure funding.

By the Numbers

$US 100 million: Grant approved for Flint, Michigan, to replace lead service lines, water mains, and make other water system repairs. Congress made the funds available last year as part of a water infrastructure package. Roughly half of the money will be available immediately. Disbursement of the balance — designated for water main replacement and treatment plant upgrades — requires additional paperwork. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

$US 498 million: Budget for a popular U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provides grants and low-interest loans to rural communities for water and sewer system repairs. Trump proposes eliminating the program. (White House)

17: Number of Republican co-sponsors of a House resolution on “conservative environmental stewardship.” The resolution commits “to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates, including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact.” (Rep. Elise Stefanik)

112 million: Gallons of sewage that spilled in February into the New River, a waterway in Mexicali that flows into southern California. The spill occurred because of damage to a sewer pipe and the failure of a backup pumping system. (International Boundary and Water Commission)

News Briefs

Trump Budget
Snip, snip? No. Chop, slash. Hinted at last week, President Donald Trump’s “America First” budget proposal makes deep cuts across many agencies in order to free up $US 54 billion for the Defense Department.

“This budget blueprint follows through on my promise to focus on keeping Americans safe, keeping terrorists out of our country, and putting violent offenders behind bars,” Trump wrote.

The knife, so to speak, is now in Congress’s kitchen. Will senators and representatives choose to use it? Here’s what they are looking at.

Among other cuts, the proposal:

  • Eliminates the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $US 498 million grant and loan program for rural water systems. Rural communities, he says, can turn to EPA or private loans for funds. There is already more demand for EPA loans than there is funding. And to understand some of the challenges with private sector financing, see this Circle of Blue report.
  • Decreases the EPA budget by 31 percent and 3,200 employees. If enacted, it would be the fewest agency employees since the first term of the Reagan administration.
  • Decreases the Interior Department budget by 12 percent.
  • Keeps state revolving loan funds at $US 2.3 billion. This program, the federal government’s primary water infrastructure financing vehicle, provides low-interest loans for drinking water and sewer projects. WIFIA, a low-interest loan program open to private firms if they partner with a public agency, remains funded at $US 20 million.

The figures released last week are a “blueprint.” The full budget will be submitted in May, according to the OMB director.

Bill to Force EPA Regulation of Four Chemicals in Drinking Water
New York’s senators, both Democrats, introduced a bill that requires the EPA to regulate four drinking water contaminants: perchlorate, which is used in rocket fuel; 1,4 dioxane, which is a solvent used to make other chemicals; and two perfluorinated compounds, PFOA and PFOS. Perfluorinated compounds are used in nonstick chemicals like Teflon and in firefighting foams.

Wyoming Reservoir Bill
A bill to authorize the expansion of usable water in Wyoming’s Fontenelle Reservoir passed the House. The amount of usable water would increase by 30 percent, meaning the reservoir could be drawn lower than currently permitted. The reservoir is in the Colorado River Basin. Wyoming would pay for the engineering work to prepare for lower water levels. State officials say that the ability to tap the lake at lower levels is a hedge against drought.

Studies and Reports

Inspector General Report on Advisory Committees
To increase transparency, the EPA should post online its responses to recommendations made by the agency’s eight science and research advisory committees, according to an inspector general report.

Lack of Scientific Studies After Dam Removal
Through 2014, more than 1,200 dams in the United States had been taken down in the preceding century. But scientific evaluations of ecological changes after dam removal are less common. Such studies occurred in fewer than 10 percent of cases, according to a U.S. Geological Survey review.

Meanwhile, the work of dam removal continues to pick up steam. A total of 1,384 dams have been torn down through 2016, according to American Rivers, which tracks removals.

Congressional Research Service Reports
The research arm of Congress published two water-related reports. One is on affordability and municipal investment to meet Clean Water Act requirements, a process that the EPA calls “integrated planning.”

The second is a preview of issues to come in the next farm bill. Both reports are courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy Blog.

On the Radar

Alabama Site Removed from Superfund List
After achieving goals for cleaning up groundwater contaminated by benzene, EPA and state officials are removing a site in Baldwin County, Alabama, from Superfund, the national list of priority polluted areas.

Following the derailment in 1965 of a train carrying chemicals, an unknown quantity of benzene leaked into groundwater. Nearly two decades later, benzene was found in household wells nearby. The cleanup process, which began with the Superfund listing in 1983, took decades. It was declared complete in 2014, after monitoring wells showed five consecutive years of low benzene levels.

Public Education for Lead Webinar
The EPA is hosting a webinar to discuss ways to improve public education for communities affected by lead in drinking water. The webinar takes place on March 23 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern. Register via the above link. A water infrastructure bill that Congress passed last December requires the EPA to develop a public education plan within 180 days.

Lake and River Pollution Discussion
EPA scientists will discuss conclusions from two recent reports on trends in river and lake pollution in the United States. One significant trend is rising levels of phosphorus, a nutrient that aids algae growth, in lakes. The free, public webinar is on March 23 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. Sign up 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.