Federal Water Tap, March 27: Two Wins for the Pipeline Industry

The Rundown

The Trump administration issues a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. A U.S. district court rejects lawsuit that claimed that a federal energy regulator is biased toward pipeline industry. An Oroville Dam review board says spillway repairs may not be completed by the next rainy season. A Senate committee holds a hearing on three water quality bills. A Senate bill requires the EPA to revise its water affordability guidelines. The Army Corps releases revised environmental review of proposed Texas reservoir. New deadlines in Florida v. Georgia watershed lawsuit. The U.S. Geological Survey publishes county-level estimates of nitrogen and phosphorus from animal manure. The Bureau of Reclamation sets water allocations for the Central Valley Project and endorses a project to use oilfield wastewater for irrigation. And lastly, the EPA hosts a webinar on sewage treatment for homes in central Alabama that pipe waste into the backyard.

“It is imperative that the emergency spillway not receive additional flows and that a long-term mitigation and re-design plan begin now.” — Assessment of the independent expert panel that is reviewing repairs to Oroville Dam.

By the Numbers

65 percent: Share of a full water allocation that farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will receive this year. Farmers were dismayed that the figure was not higher in such a wet year. (Bureau of Reclamation)

9.9 million acre-feet: Forecasted inflow to Lake Powell from April to July, which is 38 percent above normal. The estimate, however, is a decrease from earlier forecasts because of a dry March. (NOAA)

News Briefs

Keystone XL Approval
President Donald Trump, as he had promised, authorized construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, greenlighting one of the most contested energy projects in recent memory. The State Department issued a permit to TransCanada, the pipeline developer, on March 23.

“It’s going to be an incredible pipeline, greatest technology known to man or woman,” Trump said at an Oval Office signing ceremony. “And frankly, we’re very proud of it.”

And yet, even now, it’s not a done deal. One, there are likely legal challenges. Two, the pipeline still needs state permits. When TransCanada president Russ Girling said he did not know when construction would start because the company lacks permits from Nebraska, Trump said he would intervene.

“I’ll call Nebraska,” he said.

‘Structural Bias’ Lawsuit Against FERC Dismissed
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit that accused the federal government’s natural gas pipeline and hydropower regulator of “structural bias” in favor of the industries that it regulates.

Delaware Riverkeeper, a river protection group, filed the lawsuit in an attempt to block the PennEast pipeline, a proposed natural gas line through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The group argued, among other claims, that because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission levies fees on gas companies — fees that fund its operating budget — the commission is inherently biased toward approving pipelines.

The district court disagreed. It ruled that Congress is the entity responsible for funding FERC because it sets the commission’s budget authority. Approval of new pipelines, therefore, does not increase the commission’s budget. “The connection between the act of approving an individual pipeline and the financial sustainability of the commission as a whole is simply too remote to create any such bias,” the ruling states.

Quicker Review for Dams
Nine Republicans from western states sponsored a House bill to speed up the permitting process for dams built on public lands managed by the departments of Interior and Agriculture. The bill designates the Bureau of Reclamation as the lead agency for coordinating environmental reviews.

Florida v. Georgia Lawsuit Continues
The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the report of the legal expert overseeing the case, which favored Georgia. But the court gave Florida 45 days to file briefs contesting the report, and Georgia 30 days to respond to Florida’s arguments. Florida, if it chooses, could file a final response, which would be due in early July.

Studies and Reports

Oroville Dam Update
The five-member review board that is assessing emergency and long-term repairs to the damaged Oroville spillway has begun its work. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required California to form the review board.

In a March 10 meeting, the board stated that it is “absolutely critical” that the emergency spillway not be used this spring to pass snowmelt runoff. Severe erosion of the emergency spillway triggered the evacuation order in mid-February for nearly 200,000 people downstream.

On seeing the California Department of Water Resources’ work plan, the board said that repairing the main spillway, which was gouged by high flows, before November may not be possible. The construction period runs from May to November, when water flows are lowest and the spillway can be shut down.

FERC also approved six members of a forensic team that will investigate the cause of the spillway failure.

Using Oilfield Wastewater For Irrigation
The Bureau of Reclamation found that expanding the use of water that flows out of oil wells in California’s San Joaquin Valley for irrigation will have no significant environmental effect.

The Kern-Tulare Water District proposes to build a reservoir to hold up to 2,640 acre-feet of “produced” water per year from Hathaway LLC, an oil producer. Residual oil would be skimmed off before the water is sent to the new reservoir. Before being used for irrigation the water would be blended with water imported from northern California.

Reclamation’s analysis shows several benefits: electricity savings from not having to pump the produced water back into the ground and from not pumping groundwater for irrigation. Lower electricity use, in turn, reduces sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions, the study claims.

The California water board has convened a panel of experts to evaluate the consequences to human health of reusing oilfield produced water for irrigation. See also Circle of Blue’s previous coverage.

Texas Reservoir Environmental Review
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers posted a revised draft environmental impact statement for the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek reservoir, a medium-sized water storage facility proposed for northern Texas. The revision analyzes a smaller reservoir than the proposed design.

The proposed design calls for a reservoir to store up to 367,609 acre-feet of water. It would flood 5,874 acres of wetlands as well as bottomland forests, cropland, and a number of rural roads. To offset the loss of wetlands and streams, the water district behind the proposal purchased a 15,000-acre ranch within the watershed and will bring the ranch’s degraded wetlands back to life.

Public comments are being accepted through May 11 and can be emailed to ceswt-ro@usace.army.mil with “RDEIS Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir” as the subject line.

Data on Nutrients from Animal Manure
The U.S. Geological Survey published county-level estimates of nitrogen and phosphorus from animal manure in 2007 and 2012.

Sampling for Chemicals in Streams
This one is for the specialists: a U.S. Geological Survey report on the sampling methods and analytical techniques used to assess chemical concentrations in U.S. streams.

Changing Hydropower Operations Helps Eels Survive
Intermittent shutdowns of hydropower turbines during migration season cut the death rate of American eels passing through dams almost in half, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study of five dams on the Shenandoah River of Virginia and West Virginia. The death rate fell from 63 percent to 37 percent when turbines were turned off at night in the fall.

On the Radar

Water Pollution Hearing
On March 28, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will discuss a trio of bills related to water pollution, affordability, and the Clean Water Act.

  • The Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act would put into law a practice that the EPA started in 2012: allowing communities to do the cheapest, most-effective sewer system upgrades first. This includes the use of swales, ponds, and related “green” infrastructure instead of pipes and tanks. The bill also requires the agency to revise its affordability guidelines, no longer allowing median household income to be the sole indicator. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.
  • The Small and Rural Community Clean Water Technical Assistance Act provides $US 75 million in grants over five years to help water utilities that serve fewer than 10,000 people manage their systems.
  • The Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act authorizes funding for two programs to clean up the densely populated inlet between Connecticut and New York. Some 24 million people live within 50 miles of the waterway. Environmental pressures include the dumping of dredged soil and the flow of nitrogen from sewage treatment plants and septic systems.

Dumping Household Sewage on the Ground
To deal with toilet waste, homes in poor counties in central Alabama that are not connected to a sewer frequently use a “straight pipe” – a pipe from the house to a pit in the backyard. The EPA will host a webinar on March 28 to discuss solutions to this longstanding injustice. Read more from Circle of Blue about sanitation failures in Alabama.

Environmental Financial Advisory Board Nominations
The EPA extended the deadline to March 31 to nominate members for the Environmental Financial Advisory Board, which consults with the agency on financial matters. The extension allows the new administration to participate in the selection.

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.