Federal Water Tap, October 23: Chemical Contamination and Nutrient Trading Assessed in Pair of GAO Reports

The Rundown

The GAO finds little activity in state nutrient trading markets and catalogues the military’s response to firefighting chemicals in drinking water. Security agencies warn energy and water utilities about a hacking campaign that began in May. Developers file a permit for a 2,000-megawatt pumped storage hydropower project in northern Arizona. The U.S. Geological Survey finds high arsenic concentrations in household wells serving roughly two million people. Six Rio Grande dams are inspected without a change in their risk classification. And lastly, nearly three-quarters of Puerto Ricans have water service now…but authorities still recommend that they boil it.

“We know that keeping lines of communication open with the White House is critical to addressing the needs that still exist in Flint. We are still recovering from the water crisis and are still on bottled and filtered water. We need our leaders in Washington to know that we need their help in fortifying our failing U.S. urban infrastructures. We cannot continue to fund this through rate increases passed on to our residents, but we can use this rebuilding as an opportunity to train and employ them.” — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, after a meeting with White House officials and Michigan congressional representatives.

By the Numbers

72: Percent of Puerto Ricans whose water is now running. Because of malfunctioning sewage treatment facilities, health officials still recommend boiling tap water. And yet, less than one-quarter of residents have power restored. (FEMA)

0: Residents of St. John, one of three main U.S. Virgin Islands, who have power from the electrical grid. Restoration of the grid is expected to take another two to three weeks. (FEMA)

1.5 million to 2.9 million: People in the United States whose household wells contain high levels of naturally occurring arsenic. The highest-risk states include those in the West, Southwest, Great Lakes, and New England. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Pump Up the Dams
Developers filed a preliminary permit for a 2,000-megawatt pumped storage hydropower project in northern Arizona that would use groundwater to generate electricity. The permit is in essence a placeholder — it does not allow for any construction activities.

Pumped storage is a loop system involving upper and lower reservoirs. Water from the lower reservoir is pumped uphill during nighttime hours, when power is cheap, and released during the afternoon, when demand — and prices — are high.

The Big Chino Valley project has been discussed for several years. The project requires construction of a 360-ft-tall dam and a 250-ft-tall dam, both of which with capacity to store more than 19,000 acre-feet of water, which would come from groundwater.

U.S.-Mexico Dam Inspections
Six dams on the Rio Grande were inspected in the last year without a change in their risk classification, according to a report from the International Boundary and Water Commission, which manages the structures. The highest-risk dam, Amistad, is rated “potentially unsafe” because of natural sinkholes in the area and the damage that would occur were the dam to fail.

Yes, No, Yes: Groundwater Project Gets BLM Greenlight
Reversing an Obama administration decision, the Bureau of Land Management ruled that a controversial groundwater supply project in the Mojave desert can use an existing railroad right-of-way to deliver water to metropolitan Southern California and does not need a federal permits, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Cadiz project has a prominent backer in the Trump administration. David Bernhardt, the second in command at the Interior Department, lobbied on behalf of Cadiz in his previous position at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a powerful law firm.

Studies and Reports

GAO: Inactive Market for Nutrient Credits
Eleven states run a version of a cap-and-trade market for nutrient pollution in waterways, but the markets are not busy, according to a Government Accountability Office review of programs in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, states in which a majority of trades occurred.

Two factors account for the lack of trading: soft caps, which do not provide the regulatory motivation to cut nutrient discharges, and difficulty in measuring reductions from farms and other “nonpoint” sources, which are generally not addressed in the Clean Water Act.

Most trades are between “point” sources such as sewage treatment facilities. Most sewage treatment facilities in the three states in this review cut nutrient pollution by investing in better equipment, often before the trading programs were established. Credits accounted for one percent of the nutrient discharge limit in Virginia and 20 percent in Connecticut.

“Although nutrient credit trading has provided point sources with flexibility in meeting discharge limits, trading is not responsible for reducing nutrient pollution,” the report concludes.

The GAO review was requested by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and based on 2014 data, which was the most current information available when the study began.

GAO: Defense Department Begins Addressing Firefighting Chemicals in Drinking Water
At least 11 military bases are closing on-site groundwater wells and 19 bases have funded off-base water system improvements and take other actions to respond to worries about firefighting chemicals in drinking water, according to a GAO review.

Defense Department systems supply water to about three million people working on military bases. In a separate review, the department identified some 391 active or closed bases with suspected perfluorinated chemical contamination.

Congress ordered the review as part of the 2017 Defense Department spending bill. Military base actions were tallied through March 2017.

In context: Nonstick Chemicals Slipped into Water, Causing Health, Environmental, Regulatory Mess

On the Radar

Hackers Targeting Water Systems
In response to the targeting of energy, water, nuclear, and aviation computer systems since May, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned computer network managers to take precautions when using internet-connected systems.

DHS says that the hacking campaign, called Dragonfly, is targeting small and low-profile systems in pursuit of a long-term strategy of entering critical systems. The campaign is ongoing, according to the report.

Some of the hacking strategies are also described in a report by the computer security firm Symantec. The location and identity of the attack group is not known, according to the firm’s September report. “Dragonfly is a highly experienced threat actor, capable of compromising numerous organizations, stealing information, and gaining access to key systems. What it plans to do with all this intelligence has yet to become clear,” Symantec says.

In context: Water Sector Prepares for Cyberattacks

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