Federal Water Tap, March 6: Trump Executive Order Muddles Clean Water Act


On President Trump’s orders, two federal agencies begin reviewing the Clean Water Rule. Trump also considers big budget cuts to agencies not named the Department of Defense. Ryan Zinke, a Montana congressman, is confirmed as Interior Department secretary and reauthorizes use of lead bullets and fishing tackle in national wildlife refuges. The Bureau of Reclamation notifies certain Central Valley water users that they will get all their contracted water this year. The EPA rejects a request to ban fluoride in drinking water. FERC approves an Oroville Dam review board. An Army intelligence report identifies the need to understand water and sewer systems in combat zones. And lastly, a House committee kicks off the federal water infrastructure funding debate with a hearing on Thursday.

“Relief is on the way with respect to withdrawing the Waters of the United States Rule…As you know, the last several years the attitude out of Washington, D.C. has been what?: ‘We know best. We’re going to displace the states. We’re going to duplicate their authority. And so long as the states agree with us, we’re OK. But if they don’t we’re going to do what? We’re going to force our will upon the states.’ That is changing under our leadership at the EPA and President Trump’s leadership in the White House. Help is on the way.” — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt addressing the Farm Bureau Advocacy Conference on February 28, the day that President Trump signed an order to review the Waters of the United States Rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule. Pruitt reiterated his support for Superfund cleanup, deregulation, and “cooperative federalism,” meaning a bigger regulatory role for the states.

By the Numbers

25 percent: Cut to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding in an early version of President Trump’s budget. (Washington Post)

100 percent: Share of water supplies that contract holders with three Central Valley Project divisions will receive this year. Snowpack is double the historical average in the southern Sierra Nevada. (Bureau of Reclamation)

News Briefs

Trump Orders Review of Clean Water Rule
Trump ordered two agencies to review and rewrite one of the most contentious environmental rules of the Obama administration. The Clean Water Rule sought to clarify which water bodies are regulated by the Clean Water Act.

“With today’s executive order, I’m directing the EPA to take action, paving the way for the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule,” Trump said while signing the order. The rule has not yet gone into effect, having been stayed in October 2015 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

If Trump thinks that his order will bring quick resolution to a jurisdictional debate that has churned through the courts for more than three decades, he is mistaken. According to legal experts, the administration will have to contend with the science that the EPA already completed and legal precedent that favors a broad interpretation of the law.

The EPA and the Army Corps published a notice in the Federal Register on March 6 that they will begin reviewing the rule, a process of public comment and agency response that could take a year or two.

Trump Suggests Slashing Non-Defense Budget
Trump would take the axe to a host of domestic and international programs, notably the EPA, in order to boost defense spending by $US 54 billion. The budget details emerged last week in a series of official announcements and leaked documents.

Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director, said that the figures that Trump mentioned are a blueprint and “not a full-blown budget.” A full budget, along with the president’s plans for infrastructure spending, will come in May, Mulvaney said.

The budget numbers do reflect Trump’s policy preferences, Mulvaney noted. “It is a true America-first budget,” he said. “It will show the president is keeping his promises and doing exactly what he said he was going to do when he ran for office.”

One of those promises was to diminish the EPA. According to a copy of the budget blueprint, which the Washington Post reviewed, Trump is staying true to his word. The blueprint would slash the EPA budget by 25 percent and reduce staff by 20 percent, or roughly 3,000 employees. More than three dozen programs including grants to states to clean up contaminated sites and monitor pollution, would be eliminated.

Presidential budgets, however, are not the final word on spending. They are more akin to a fashion statement – in this case, donning a leather jacket to signal rebellion. It is Congress that holds the power of the purse. And key Republicans do not agree with Trump’s preference for a military buildup at the expense of foreign aid, environmental monitoring, the arts, education, scientific research, or any number of other domestic priorities that could be targeted.

Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican who sits on the Appropriations Committee, which is in charge of the budget, said that EPA funding is already lean and that existing programs are beneficial. “There’s a lot of members who have a lot of interest in these programs. There’s more to our government than just defense,” he told E&E News.

Confirmed As Interior Secretary, Zinke Leads With Lead
A day after his Senate confirmation (by a vote of 68 to 31), new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke started with the bangs. Bullets, that is.

One of his first actions in office, after riding a horse to work, was to revoke a last-minute Obama administration directive that banned the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on lands overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lead shot can poison birds.

The order states that the previous directive “was issued without significant communication, consultation, or coordination with affected stakeholders.”

Circle of Blue asked whether the Interior Department would reopen the matter with a more extensive consultation, but the press office did not respond.

Rural Water System Aid Legislation
A bipartisan group of 10 senators introduced a bill to provide technical training to water systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people. The bill authorizes up to $US 15 million per year over five years and allows states to spend more of their revolving loan funds, largely designated for infrastructure upgrades, on technical training.

Fluoride Stays in Drinking Water
The EPA rejected a request to ban the addition of fluoride to drinking water because the petitioners did not produce a scientifically defensible case. The request came from Fluoride Action Network, Food & Water Watch, Organic Consumers Association, American Academy of Environmental Medicine, and International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology along with five individuals.

Studies and Reports

Army Intelligence Report Identifies Need for Water Knowledge
Soldiers and commanders need a better understanding of the physical environment of the cities in which they operate, according to an Army report on using intelligence gathering to inform its response to future armed conflict.

The U.S. Army Functional Concept for Intelligence, 2020-2040 report mentions the needs to develop sensors to assess water quality and sewer system capacity in urban environments.

“Environmental or social information requirements may dominate future intelligence efforts, and the environment can be just as unpredictable and uncooperative as the threat at surrendering capability and intent,” the report states. “Food and water supplies, public health, and utilities may rival threat capabilities as a priority.”

FERC Approves Oroville Dam Review Board
Federal energy regulators approved the five-person board that will evaluate California’s response to the Oroville Dam emergency. The five members were proposed by the California Department of Water Resources.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officials also told California counterparts to speed up a review of the spillway failure. FERC ordered DWR to select a team to lead the forensic analysis by March 15.

On the Radar

Water Infrastructure Hearing
The discussion on the federal role in water infrastructure spending starts in earnest on March 9 with a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing. Seven witnesses representing state agencies, building contractors, mayors, and research organizations are slated to testify.

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.