Federal Water Tap, May 8: Water Programs Largely Protected in Budget Deal

The Rundown

Congress decides not to scrap water spending. The U.S. Geological Survey finds arsenic and uranium in household drinking water wells in Connecticut. Lake Ontario water levels are the highest since 1993, prompting managers to release more water to minimize flooding. The Senate environment committee will discuss the private sector’s role in water while the Senate energy committee votes on bills related to hydropower and rural water systems. The Interior Department holds four public meetings on the future of the American West’s largest coal-fired power plant. And lastly, the EPA hosts a webinar on the effectiveness of Philadelphia’s green infrastructure program.

“The administration is also concerned that the Congress did not exercise fiscal restraint, as it failed to include responsible reductions to non-defense discretionary spending to offset higher spending elsewhere.” — Office of Management and Budget statement on the budget deal that Congress approved last week. Lawmakers shielded many programs from cuts preferred by the White House.

By the Numbers

7: Percent of 624 household wells tested in Connecticut that had arsenic or uranium concentrations higher than federal drinking water standards. Private wells are not regulated and testing is not mandatory. (U.S. Geological Survey)

17.3 inches: Rise in Lake Ontario water level in April after a rainy month. It was the third-largest April increase in 99 years of measurements. Water levels in the lake are the highest since 1993 and managers are releasing more water to minimize flooding. (International Joint Commission)

News Briefs

Water Programs Survive Budget Deal Intact
The Trump administration’s talk of slashing environmental programs in fiscal year 2018 did not translate into big cuts in 2017. Congress approved a budget deal last week that keeps the government operating through September 30.
Clean water groups called the agreement a “good sign” heading into negotiations for 2018.

The agreement’s water-related provisions are many. The deal funds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at just over $US 8 billion, a one percent decrease. The government’s two main water loan programs are funded at the same level as in 2016: $US 1.4 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and $US 863 million for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. WIFIA, a new program, will be able to loan just over $US 3 billion for large water projects.

Regional water programs such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay program were maintained at current levels while the Long Island Sound and Gulf of Mexico programs saw increases. The agreement requires the Army Corps to provide quarterly updates to congressional budget committees on its efforts to combat Asian carp in the Great Lakes. The agreement also gives utilities some leeway in notifying the public when sewers overflow during heavy rain. Congress allocated $US 4 million to monitor water quality in the Animas River, where a mine waste spill occurred in August 2015.

The agreement provides $US 67 million for construction of federally owned reservoirs or state owned water storage projects. State owned projects could be either groundwater or surface water storage. That money was authorized by a big water infrastructure package signed by President Obama in December 2016.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural water loan and grant program is funded at $US 571 million, an increase of $US 48 million. This program supports water and sewer repairs for small communities and tribes and a “circuit rider” program in which roving engineers make house calls to help maintain and operate small water systems. The Trump administration has called for this program to be eliminated in 2018.

Drinking water contamination on military bases was highlighted in the Defense Department budget. Certain firefighting foams — class B aqueous film forming foams — that are used for putting out petroleum fires have contaminated drinking water wells both on and near bases.

The Defense Department is required to submit a report to Congress within 120 days on the use of aqueous film forming foams on military bases. The report is to detail the number of current and former bases in which such foams were used and what effect they have had on drinking water in surrounding communities.

In context: Firefighting foams and other compounds contaminate wells across the United States.

Studies and Reports

North Carolina Rivers After Hurricane Matthew
Hurricane Matthew, in October 2016, rewrote the record books. A U.S. Geological Survey report used the new peak flows to draw flood maps for six communities that were inundated.

Great Lakes Water Levels
The Army Corps of Engineers provides weekly updates on Great Lakes water levels. All five of the lakes are above average for this time of year.

CRS Report on Drinking Water Fund
The Congressional Research Service lists bills introduced in the current Congress that affect the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the main federal loan program for drinking water systems.

On the Radar

How Well Does Philadelphia’s Green Infrastructure Work?
The EPA Office of Research and Development will host a webinar on May 9 to present research on the effectiveness of Philadelphia’s green infrastructure program. Five EPA grant recipients will discuss findings from studies on implementing, monitoring, and assessing the use of grass and wetlands to trap stormwater. The webinar is free and open to the public. Register by May 9 at the above link.

Water Resources Hearing
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on May 9 on the role of the public and private sector in water resources. The hearing is a sign of the times. The Interior Department is investigating private sector partnerships for a handful of its water projects. Reclamation will hold a forum on May 9 to discuss the projects.

Senate Committee Votes on Water Bills
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will mark up several water-related bills. One exempts certain small hydropower projects from relicensing. Another authorizes construction of rural water systems in Montana and North Dakota. A third coordinates the permitting process for building new reservoirs on federal lands.

Future of Navajo Generating Station
The Interior Department holds four public meetings the week of May 15 in Arizona to discuss the future of Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant on Navajo land. The plant’s utility owners have indicated that they want to close the facility because of cheaper natural gas power. Navajo Generating Station uses between 26,000 and 29,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to cool power-generating equipment.

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.