Federal Water Tap, May 1: EPA Website To Be Scrubbed of Obama Administration Influence

The Rundown

Trump orders a review of national monument designations and a report on aiding rural communities and agriculture. The EPA water office holds a public listening session on Trump’s agenda to cut federal regulations. An Indian tribe in Montana approves a $US 471 million water rights settlement. A federal water loan program in Puerto Rico is in shambles because of the island’s financial crisis. The Bureau of Reclamation identifies five federal water projects as potential candidates for private sector participation. Reclamation also publishes a draft environmental assessment of a California groundwater recharge project and launches a water data portal. And lastly, a Montana senator proposes to prohibit mining on 30,000 national forest acres next to Yellowstone National Park.

“As EPA renews its commitment to human health and clean air, land, and water, our website needs to reflect the views of the leadership of the agency. We want to eliminate confusion by removing outdated language first and making room to discuss how we’re protecting the environment and human health by partnering with states and working within the law.” — J.P. Freire, associate administrator for public affairs, in a press release signaling that the agency will rewrite its website to correspond with the Trump administration’s political views. The climate change page, for instance, now says, “This page is being updated.”

By the Numbers

$US 471 million: Water rights settlement that was accepted by the Blackfeet Nation. Congress approved the deal last December. The money goes toward improving irrigation and community water supply systems. (Flathead Beacon)

22: Number of national monuments being reviewed by the Interior Department for possible resizing or elimination. The White House order requires review of monuments larger than 100,000 acres that were designated after January 1, 1996. (Los Angeles Times)

30,000 acres: Land in Montana’s Custer Gallatin National Forest on which mining would be prohibited under a bill introduced in the Senate. The land is just north of Yellowstone National Park. (Sen. John Tester)

News Briefs

Antiquities Act Review
President Trump ordered a review of nearly two dozen national monuments designated in the last two decades, several of which are marine sites. Monuments are public land set aside by presidents and are typically off-limits to new mining activities. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who will lead the assessment, said the review is appropriate but noted that whether the president can revoke a national monument is an untested action.

An interim report is due in 45 days. One criteria for review, Zinke said, is jobs. As in: do monument designations harm local economies? That they do is often an argument of monument opponents. But is it true? Headwaters Economics, a research group in Bozeman, Montana, analyzed the question in 2014 and found “no evidence that the new national monuments prevented continued economic growth.”

A second question: Does Trump have the power to do this? Four U.S. law professors writing in The Conversation say he does not. Presidents are allowed to set aside land for monuments but only Congress can resize or revoke monument status, according to their reading of the Antiquities Act, the law for establishing monuments. Congress has altered monuments only ten times in the 111-year history of the act.

Agriculture and Rural America Executive Order
Adding to the avalanche of West Wing commands, Trump established a task force to look at ways to boost agriculture and the economic fortunes of rural America.

Within 180 days the task force must submit a report to the president on policy, legislative, or executive actions that will improve life in rural communities. Sonny Perdue, confirmed last week as the Agriculture secretary, will serve as chair.

One of the 13 line items called out in the order is to “ensure that water users’ private property rights are not encumbered when they attempt to secure permits to operate on public lands.” This seems to be a response to the dust up a few years ago between the U.S. Forest Service and ski resorts over water rights and operating permits.

House Committee Approves Water Bills
The House Natural Resources Committee sent a half dozen bills related to water and hydropower permitting to the full House for consideration.

Lobbyist Nominated as Interior Department Deputy
President Trump nominated David Bernhardt, a former Bush administration official and a lobbyist, to be the second in command at the Interior Department. The Desert Sun highlights some of Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest in California, including a stake in the Cadiz groundwater project and lobbying for Westlands Water District, a powerful Central Valley farm district. Bernhardt must be confirmed by the Senate.

Studies and Reports

Puerto Rico Financial Crisis Hits Water Loan Program
For reasons related to the island’s financial crisis, a federal government water and sewer loan program in Puerto Rico is in shambles, according to an EPA inspector general’s investigation. Some $US 774 million in revolving loan funds will not be available for lending in the next two to three years.

Three-quarters of the money, some $US 580 million, is loaned to the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, which has over $US 5 billion in outstanding debt. The authority says it cannot repay the loan. It has suspended all construction projects, which, according to the inspector general, are “critical” for complying with federal water pollution laws.

The remaining funds are unavailable because the Puerto Rico government does not have the cash to pay out the balance. The revolving loan is seeded by annual congressional appropriations and state contributions at a 20 percent match. Interest on the loans goes back into the fund. As money is repaid, it is loaned again.

California Groundwater Recharge Project
The Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental assessment of a groundwater recharge project in Monterey County, on California’s central coast. Reclamation proposes to provide $US 20 million for the project, which will serve a number of uses: a buffer against saltwater intrusion into the coastal aquifer, irrigation water for farms, and drinking water for CalAm, a water company.

Reclamation Water Data Site
Data folks, this one is for you. Reclamation put water data for reservoirs, canals, and weather stations into one online portal. Data is available from 2010 to present. For reservoirs you can see elevation, storage, releases, inflows, and more. Here’s a graph of Lake Powell daily evaporation data.

On the Radar

EPA Office of Water Opens (Some) Phone Lines for Comment
By law, the Trump administration must gather public comments in its quest to cut federal regulation. The EPA Office of Water holds a three-hour public listening session on May 2, via phone and web conference. One hundred fifty phone lines, distributed at random to people who pre-registered, will be called on for comment. With the time allotted for the listening session, the office expects only 70 to 80 people will be able to comment at the May 2 meeting. That’s not the only option for participating. Comments are being accepted online through May 15.

The list of other EPA offices holding public listening sessions can be found here.

Hydropower Week
Generating energy from moving water is on the agenda this week in Washington, D.C. Alejandro Moreno, director of the Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office will give a keynote address on May 1 on a “new vision for hydropower,” which is the department’s slogan for generating more power from existing dams and using reservoirs as a form of battery storage.

Public-Private Partnerships at Reclamation
The Bureau of Reclamation, in a request for information, identified five federal water projects as potential candidates for private sector financing or management. The projects include:

  • Kachess drought relief pumping plant, in Washington state
  • Eastern New Mexico rural water system
  • Paradox Valley Unit salinity management
  • Yuma desalting plant, in Arizona
  • Arkansas Valley conduit, in Colorado

Reclamation will hold a forum on May 9 to discuss the projects. The forum will be webcast at this link.

Indian Water Rights Settlements
The Interior Department sent notice to the Office of Management and Budget that it wants to prepare a study of the economic changes resulting from Indian water rights settlements.

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.