Federal Water Tap, November 13: Lake Erie Algae Forecasts Were on the Mark
Lake Erie algal bloom was severe this summer, just as researchers forecast. The House and Senate include water contamination provisions in a military spending bill. The House tax bill would affect water infrastructure financing. The State Department appoints a new Columbia River Treaty chief negotiator. The EPA holds a public meeting on its definition of the scope of the Clean Water Act. Trump’s nominee to lead the Council on Environmental Quality testifies before a Senate Committee. The House passes a hydropower bill. NOAA measures near-record heat and moisture in the first 10 months of 2017 in the United States. And lastly, another thing to worry about.
“This could well be a time, and I would welcome the challenge, to make very significant changes in environmental review, mostly to shorten the process and reduce the cost and uncertainty and duplication.” — Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, when asked by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) during a confirmation hearing about her priorities for environmental policy. The CEQ oversees implementation of the environmental review process.
By the Numbers
367,609: Acre-feet of storage capacity for the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek reservoir, a municipal water-supply project proposed by the North Texas Municipal Water District for. A final environmental review recommends granting the project a Section 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, a permit required because the project will flood wetlands. The reservoir, planned for Fannin County, would reliably supply one-third of its capacity. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
13: Deaths in the United States in 2013-14 from disease outbreaks linked to drinking water contamination. All deaths were attributed to Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia-like infection. (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Water Contamination on Military Bases
The House and Senate included provisions on drinking water contamination in a military spending bill that had been in conference between the two chambers.
The National Defense Authorization Act authorizes $7 million to study the health effects of perfluorinated chemicals. An ingredient in foams that are used to put out oil fires, these chemicals have been found in groundwater on military bases and in wells in nearby communities. The study is due five years after the bill is enacted. The Defense Department will be required to submit a report within 180 days that outlines alternative firefighting foams.
The bill also orders the Defense Department to report on radium in groundwater near Bethpage, New York. The radium is linked to a Naval weapons facility.
In addition, lawmakers considered a rider to adopt a wastewater drainage settlement with a large and powerful irrigation district in California, High Country News reports. In the end, they did not include the measure.
House Tax Bill Eliminates Bond Used for Infrastructure Financing
Water systems, roads, airports — infrastructure projects like these are influenced by the tax code. And the House tax bill that was introduced last week proposes eliminating the tax benefits for a type of bond that is used to lure private dollars into infrastructure financing.
It’s called a private activity bond, or PAB. The bonds are issued by a local government for a project that is owned and managed by a private partner but provides a public benefit. The interest that investors earn is generally exempt from federal income taxes, meaning that they accept a lower interest rate. The goal of PABs is to open more financing options while lowering the cost of borrowing for communities. Federal coffers take the financial hit.
The number of PABs for water projects has traditionally been limited by federal regulation. Water organizations frequently lobbied to remove the cap. Now the House is considering doing away with the PAB tax exemption.
PAB interest, however, is subject to the alternative minimum tax, which is a special tax rate above certain income thresholds. The Senate tax plan gets around this by proposing to exempt PAB interest from the alternative minimum tax.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House tax plan would add nearly $1.7 trillion to the federal debt over 10 years, including increased interest payments.
New Columbia River Treaty Negotiator
The State Department appointed a new chief negotiator to lead talks with Canada on revising the agreement that governs the Columbia River.
Jill Smail, who has worked on water issues in the Middle East, takes over from Brian Doherty. Negotiations with Canada have not yet started.
In effect since 1964, the Columbia River Treaty reduced flood risk in Washington and Oregon through the coordinated operation of upstream reservoirs in British Columbia and Montana. The agreement also compensates Canada for its cooperation. Any revision to the treaty is likely to include provisions on salmon protection and ecosystems.
House Passes Hydropower Bill
By a largely party-line vote of 257 to 166, the House passed the Hydropower Policy Modernization Act, a bill designed to quicken the permitting process for hydropower projects.
Studies and Reports
Assessment of 2017 Lake Erie Algal Bloom
Early-season forecasts accurately predicted the size of Lake Erie’s algal bloom, according to a NOAA assessment. The bloom’s severity, measured as the amount of biomass, was nearly equal to that of 2013, which makes it the fourth-worst in the 21st century.
The 2017 bloom peaked twice, once in August and again in mid-September. The good news is that though the bloom was large, algae produced fewer toxins than past episodes.
The first 10 months of 2017 in the United States were the third hottest and second wettest in 123 years of measurements, according to NOAA.
Parts of the Texas Gulf Coast, thanks to Hurricane Harvey, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, thanks to a relentless series of winter storms, registered their wettest January-October periods on record. Eastern Montana, meanwhile, was the driest on record.
Another Thing to Worry About
Vibrio is a bacteria that lives in warm, slightly salty water — estuaries such as the Baltic Sea and Chesapeake Bay. It was a Vibrio species that caused the cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2011. An international team of researchers, including someone from NOAA, wondered what would happen to the bacteria as coastal waters warm. As it turns out, they thrive.
The team used two climate scenarios to model the risk of Vibrio infection for Baltic Sea countries. Most parts of coastal Sweden will see the transmission season for Vibrio expand by at least one month by mid-century.
On the Radar
Public Meeting for WOTUS Rewrite
In its quest to redefine which water bodies are regulated by the Clean Water Act, the EPA is holding discussions with a number of interest groups. On November 21, agency officials will hold a teleconference to gather input from the public. To attend you must register by November 20. Priority for providing oral comments will be given to those who sign up first.
Submit written comments at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0480.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on November 14 on hurricane response in the Caribbean. Governors from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will testify, as well as officials from the electric power and water authorities.
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.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton