Federal Water Tap, May 22: Interior Department Suspends Work of Advisory Committees

The Rundown

The Interior Department told dozens of advisory committees, including one on water data and monitoring, to halt work until September. An Air Force Base in Washington state continues to find private wells contaminated by firefighting chemicals. The initial Lake Erie algal forecast is for a mild bloom, though that could change with heavy rain. Parts of three midwestern states witnessed rainfall in early May that typically occurs once every 500 years. Water infrastructure bills pile up in Congress. The CDC reports an increase in outbreaks of a parasitic infection at swimming pools. An EPA inspector general report identifies oversight of state regulators as a top challenge. And lastly, President Trump is expected to release a 2018 budget proposal today with big cuts for environmental programs.

“Our infrastructure needs can’t be a partisan issue, as clean water is key to quality of life and economic development in communities across Arkansas and the nation…Improving our nation’s wastewater systems and ensuring Americans have access to clean water is something we can all get behind, especially when it is accomplished in a manner that promotes openness, competition and efficiency.” — Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) on a water infrastructure bill co-sponsored with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD).

By the Numbers

$US 5.7 billion: Money spent from 2009 to 2015 on a U.S. Department of Agriculture water quality and land conservation program known as EQIP. A government watchdog found that the funds are not allocated based on biggest environment benefit, largely because of inadequate data. (Government Accountability Office)

43: Letters of interest in WIFIA, a new water infrastructure loan program. Projects represent $US 6 billion in investment, only a quarter of which is available for funding. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

32: Reported outbreaks of cryptosporidium at U.S. swimming pools in 2016. The parasitic infection, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, is spread through poop. Reported cases doubled compared to 2014 and are higher than any year since 2010. (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

News Briefs

Interior Suspends Advisory Committees
Saying that it needs to review their purpose in light of President Trump’s executive orders to roll back the size of the federal government, the Interior Department suspended through September the work of advisory committees that consult with the agency on natural resources policy.

“The review process is meant to identify committees that merit improvement in order to fully support their mission, serve the local communities, and ensure the department was getting local feedback to the maximum extent possible,” Heather Swift, Interior spokeswoman, wrote to Circle of Blue in an email.

A federal government database lists 102 Interior Department advisory committees that handle tasks as varied as invasive species, salinity in the Colorado River Basin, and mapping satellite data. A good many of the committees are regional councils that give community members a voice on land use decisions. The committees, depending on their purpose, comprise scientific experts, industry representatives, local leaders, and government officials.

Swift did not respond when asked via email how many of the committees are affected by the suspension. She wrote that certain committees were exempted, but she did not identify them.

One committee that is not exempted is the Advisory Committee on Water Information, which includes the National Water Quality Monitoring Council and focuses on water data. In an email on May 19 to the council’s list serve, Candice Hopkins of the U.S. Geological Survey wrote that all “meetings, teleconferences, webinars, newsletters, and other activities will be suspended at least until September 2017.”

Fairchild Air Force Base Well Contamination Update
Last week you read about the first round of private well tests near Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state, for the firefighting chemicals PFOA and PFOS. After more testing, Air Force officials have found more contaminated wells.

Preliminary results show that two wells used by the town of Airway Heights have PFOA and PFOS levels above the EPA’s health advisory, according to Lt. Katherine Miranda, Air Force spokeswoman. In the interim, the town is shutting off the wells and tapping into water from Spokane, a neighbor city.

An Airway Heights resident whose well was found to have chemical contamination has notified the Air Force that she plans to sue, according to KREM, a local television station.

Miranda said that the Air Force will likely fund filtration systems for households with a contaminated well. But that plan will take three to six months to implement, she said.

The Air Force has scheduled a public meeting for May 23, at 6:00 p.m. at Medical Lake High School to discuss the water testing and response. No wells on the base have been affected.

Corps Approves New Colorado Reservoir
The Army Corps of Engineers cleared the way for a $US 400 million reservoir north of Denver that will store Colorado River water that is moved eastward across the Rockies. Chimney Hollow reservoir, part of the Windy Gap Firming Project, will hold up to 90,000 acre-feet of water.

Water Infrastructure Bills
Three water bills introduced recently:

  • Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) introduced a bill authorizing a five-year, $US 1.8 billion grant program to reduce sewer overflows. The bill also authorizes WaterSense, the labeling program run by the EPA to identify water-efficient consumer products.
  • Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) introduced the Everglades FIRST Act, which orders the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite four reports related to the Everglades restoration plan. The reports need to be completed before the projects can begin.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee published a “discussion draft” of legislation to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act. No radical changes here — extending the payback period for federal loans, instituting a program to help utilities manage their pipes and treatment plants, and reauthorizing federal loan programs.

Studies and Reports

EPA Challenges
Oversight of state regulators is the biggest challenge for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2017, according to an inspector general report. The report notes numerous failures of federal regulators — notably the fiasco in Flint — to guarantee that state officials are upholding environmental statutes.

Season’s First Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Forecast
The algal bloom that develops each summer in the shallow western basin of Lake Erie is expected to be of “milder” size, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s first forecast of 2017. The bloom could be more severe if the watershed that drains into the lake gets more rain than is expected. The blooms are caused by heavy rains that wash algae-fueling phosphorus from farm fields into the lake.

Fixing Lake Erie’s algae problem will take patience and endurance. A pair of Carnegie Institution studies that were published last week indicate that rather than year-to-year variations in phosphorus loads, Lake Erie algal blooms respond to concentrations that have built up in soils over years or decades. That nutrient legacy cannot be purged in a year or two.

Rain of Rare Intensity in the Midwest
How strong were the rainstorms that steamed across the Midwest from April 28 to May 2? Unusually strong. Historic, even.

According to National Weather Service calculations, parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri saw rainfall that typically occurs once in 200 to 500 years. A small section of southern Missouri, near the town of Cabool, witnessed a once-in-1000-year gusher.

The National Weather Service has recurrence maps for other notable storms here.

On the Radar

Budget Day
President Trump will release his fiscal year 2018 budget today. Expect him to propose large cuts to environmental programs, as he outlined in earlier drafts. A document released by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a regulators group, indicates that the White House will seek a 31 percent cut in the EPA’s overall budget and recommend eliminating all regional watershed restoration programs, including the Great Lakes restoration, a $US 300 million initiative.

The entire document is marked with red, with 40 percent cuts proposed for enforcement and monitoring, and a 50 percent cut to a program to cleanup underground tanks that leak oil into groundwater.

Remember, though, that the president’s budget is a statement of intent. It is Congress that has power to set spending. So far they have objected to the administration’s slash-and-burn approach. In the 2017 budget deal, representatives protected programs targeted for cuts: Great Lakes restoration, rural drinking water grants, and others.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors
On May 30, the EPA hosts a webinar on water system partnerships. Combining forces, either by sharing staff or forming regional water supply networks, is one approach for lowering the cost of providing water to rural areas. A speaker from the California EPA will discuss financial and technical challenges for small systems and two case studies from California of consolidating smaller systems.

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.