Federal Water Tap, November 6: Government Report Highlights Human Causes of Climate Change

The Rundown

U.S. government report warns that what we don’t know about climate change is perhaps more worrisome than what we do. Dam regulators make changes to the federal licensing process. The EPA spotlights innovative design and financing of sewer, septic system, and stormwater projects that use federal loans. The U.S. Geological Survey again finds household water use decreasing. NASA scientists study rainfall and runoff from atmospheric rivers. The House schedules debate for drinking water and hydropower bills. And lastly, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council holds a public meeting in December to discuss health advisories while the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works questions the Trump administration’s pick to lead the Council on Environmental Quality.

“The human effect on recent major U.S. droughts is complicated. Little evidence is found for a human influence on observed precipitation deficits, but much evidence is found for a human influence on surface soil moisture deficits due to increased evapotranspiration caused by higher temperatures.” — Key finding on drought from the fourth National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive U.S. government report on climate change science. The science suggests there is high confidence that temperature is affecting water availability because of drying soils and increased evaporation. The report explains that drought is a complex phenomenon with multiple definitions. Because drier conditions may become more common, the report notes that assumptions about what constitutes a “drought” may need to change.

By the Numbers

83 gallons: Daily average household water use per person in the United States in 2015, a decrease of seven percent from 2010. That figure represents households who get water from a utility. For households who supply their own water, usually via a well, the average daily use per person was 77 gallons, a five percent decrease. (U.S. Geological Survey)

28: Wastewater, septic system, and stormwater projects identified by the EPA as particularly innovative in their design or financing. Five of the 28 — such as a homeowner reimbursement program in Little Rock, Arkansas, for sewer line replacement and a treatment system targeting de-icing chemicals at the Warwick, Rhode Island, airport — earned “exceptional” honors. Projects funded by the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a federal low-interest loan program, were eligible for recognition. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

22: Percent of global river runoff attributed to moisture-heavy air currents called atmospheric rivers, according to an estimate by an international research team that included NASA scientists. Atmospheric rivers play an outsize role in water supply in California, with just a handful of storms bringing the lion’s share of the state’s annual precipitation. If a few storms fail to land, drought may be at hand. Conversely, if a parade of atmospheric rivers marches in, as happened last winter, floods may result. (Geophysical Research Letters)

41: Percent of historical stream length in Pittsburgh that was buried or incorporated into the city’s sewer system. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Dam Regulator Changes Licensing Policy
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced that the default length of a license at a non-federal dam will be 40 years. Under current policy FERC can license dams for 30 years to 50 years, depending on planned investments. If a company is spending money to upgrade a dam, usually they seek a longer license to recover the costs.

The 40-year default is a compromise between industry groups, which supported a 50-year default, and environmental groups, which sought a 30-year term because it would allow for more frequent evaluation of dam impacts.

Studies and Reports

Hypoxia Task Force Report
The state-federal-tribal collaborative that is working toward reducing nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico released its second report on actions in the Mississippi River basin.

Formed in 1997, the task force has been largely ineffective in its primary mission: reducing the size of the annual low-oxygen dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. A 2001 “action plan” aimed to cut the dead zone to 5,000 square kilometers by 2015. That did not happen. The task force, which has no enforcement power, is now working to cut the dead zone to 5,000 square kilometers by 2035.

The dead zone’s current five-year average size is 14,000 square kilometers, nearly three times the target.

On the Radar

House To Debate Drinking Water, Hydropower Bills
Two water bills have been placed on the House’s calendar:

  • The Drinking Water System Improvement Act, sponsored by Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), which orders a number of policy changes: it gives states the authority to merge a failing system with a better managed neighbor; increases authorized funding for the state revolving fund, a loan program; expands the uses of the fund; and requires assessments of data collection, monitoring, and reporting.
  • The Hydropower Policy Modernization Act, sponsored by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), which defines hydropower as renewable energy and seeks to quicken the approval process for dams renewing their operating licenses.

CEQ Confirmation Hearing
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works holds a confirmation hearing on November 8 for Kathleen Hartnett White, the fossil-fuel promoting Texan picked to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, which is in charge of overseeing federal agency environmental reviews.

National Drinking Water Advisory Council Meeting
On December 7 and 8, the council, which consults with the EPA on drinking water policy, will hold a public meeting in Washington, D.C. The meeting will focus on communicating health advisories, which are the EPA’s non-enforceable guidelines for contaminants in drinking water.

The meeting is timely. A May 2016 health advisory for two compounds used in firefighting foams and nonstick cookware resulted in widespread confusion from local officials and the public.

If you can’t travel for the meeting, you can dial-in via teleconference: the phone number is 866-299-3188, and the conference code is 202-564-7347.

Lead Testing Webinar
EPA scientists will hold a webinar on November 28 to discuss two topics: testing for lead in schools and how to purchase lead-free plumbing products. Sign up via this link.

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.