Federal Water Tap, October 30: Sen. Booker Introduces Environmental Justice Bill

The Rundown

The New Jersey Democrat’s bill addresses disproportionate burdens of pollution. EPA and Interior release reports on laws and agency actions that impede energy development. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee starts the groundwork for a new water infrastructure bill. President Trump says an aged dike in Florida should be repaired more quickly. The EPA finds that the state of Michigan is not adequately overseeing drinking water systems. The GAO releases reports on water infrastructure and climate change. Warming temperatures, meanwhile, are already squeezing Colorado River flows. House members form the Congressional Infrastructure Caucus. And lastly, NASA ends a trailblazing satellite mission that revealed large-scale changes in water and ice.

“Indeed an environmental injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. You can’t just contain off areas and think that that poison, that that toxic environment is not affecting the whole.” — Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) announcing an environmental justice bill. Booker traced his environmental awakening to his roots in Newark, where he saw toxic living conditions, from soil, air, and water, that were harming children and communities.

By the Numbers

80: Percent of Puerto Ricans with water service restored, 40 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall. (Status.pr)

7: Percent reduction in average annual streamflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin in the last three decades. The decline is largely due to more evaporation, which itself is attributed to higher temperatures during spring and summer. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Booker Introduces Environmental Justice Bill
At McKinley Elementary School, in Newark, a dodge ball’s toss away from Interstate 280, Sen. Cory Booker announced a bill to protect poor and minority communities from polluted waters and air.

The bill is not a cure-all, Booker warned, but he hopes that it “will arm communities with the tools necessary to begin to fight back.”

The bill, informed by trips this year to Alabama, Louisiana, and North Carolina as well as Booker’s years as mayor of Newark, offers several tools to address the disproportion burden of pollution. It orders that agencies, when permitting facilities under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, assess the cumulative pollution load in a community. It gives permanent standing to the EPA’s environmental justice advisory group and reconvenes a Cabinet-level working group to guide federal agencies.

The bill also enacts into law a 2016 guidance that the EPA should consult with Indian tribes on agency actions that affect treaty rights.

“Collectively the bill would be a significant step forward on environmental justice,” wrote David Konisky, a political scientist at Indiana University, on Twitter. But Konisky set the bill’s odds of passing at zero.

NASA Ends GRACE Satellite Mission
The unexpectedly long life of a pair of pioneering satellites that deepened scientific understanding of society’s influence on water and land is over.

NASA and its project partners decided to end the GRACE satellite mission last week after the eighth of 20 battery cells on GRACE-2 failed.

For the full story on the trailblazing satellite duo, nicknamed Tom and Jerry, read Circle of Blue’s news brief.

Trump Administration Weighs In on Delta Tunnels
Good idea, but you’re paying for it. That was the gist of the Interior Department’s comments on California Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to build a pair of tunnels to move water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to pumps that deliver it to cities and farms in the southern half of the state.

Water Resources Act Hearing
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee began discussing the next Water Resources Development Act with a hearing in Miami. The committee has promised to take up water resources legislation, which authorizes Army Corps projects, every two years.

Because of the Florida setting there was much discussion of the Everglades, ports, hurricane protection, and levees. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a member of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, was one of the few to mention climate change. “Sea level rise — it’s happening here,” he said before urging the committee to look at funding adaptation measures comparable to the billions of dollars in investment that communities such as Miami-Dade County are making.

As always the underlying tension is this: how much money is Congress willing to spend?

Or maybe the money will come from elsewhere. Rep. John Shuster (R-PA) mentioned “asset recycling,” which is an en vogue concept in Washington, D.C.

Asset recycling is, in essence, the lease or sale of federal roads, hydropower plants, electric utilities, or other infrastructure assets and using the proceeds to invest in new projects. “I don’t want to sell anything,” Shuster said, acknowledging that the concept is not a “silver bullet” to infrastructure investment. “I think it’s something we’ve got to look at, something we’ve got to discuss.”

Infrastructure Repairs, You Say?
President Trump, in a four-paragraph press release, said that he was prioritizing quicker repairs to an aged dike around Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, which has been tested in recent months by a barrage of hurricanes. The release said nothing about funding or timelines.

The estimated completion date is 2025, but Florida’s governor has said that he wants the work done by 2022, according to the TC Palm newspaper. Completing the work in four years would require $200 million per year, an Army Corps spokesman said. The most money the project has received in any year is $153 million, the TC Palm reports.

Studies and Reports

Michigan Fails to Implement Federal Drinking Water Rules
The state of Michigan failed in its duty to oversee federal drinking water rules, a deficiency that worsened the lead crisis in Flint, according to an EPA performance review.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not adequately report data on drinking water system violations and its system for transferring test results from the lab to databases is flawed. Most damaging, the department did not properly implement a rule to keep lead out of drinking water.

“These deficiencies must be corrected to protect the public health of the citizens of Michigan,” the report states. The EPA blames the failures to a lack of funding.

Agency Energy Burdens Reports
As required by President Trump’s executive order from March, EPA and Interior outlined steps they will take to loosen environmental protections that hinder energy production.

In true government fashion, EPA offered four proposals, many of which require additional study and task forces. Two proposals recommend reviewing air quality standards and permits. One proposal is for an industry liaison within EPA. The final proposal is to evaluate any loss of jobs stemming from federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act. This follows a Trump administration pattern of focusing on costs, which are immediate and easier to tot up, than on benefits, which are largely marked in better health and play out over decades.

Interior’s report, meanwhile, is much broader, a nod to its land management duties. It will review conservation agreements under the Endangered Species Act, hydropower development at dams that do not currently generate power, and mining setbacks under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It will consider having the Bureau of Land Management develop greenhouse gas emission accounting for use in environmental reviews.

GAO On Water Infrastructure Spending
Though there is a need for investment, states may not spend all the money they could because of a mismatch in funding availability and project construction, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress. The GAO made no recommendations.

GAO On Climate Costs
Executive agencies within the White House should use information on the cost of climate change to inform government plans and minimize economic risk of extreme weather and rising seas, according to a GAO report.

On the Radar

Federal Lead Strategy
A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development task force is writing a strategy to reduce childhood lead exposure. This is a separate process from the EPA’s revision of lead standards for drinking water, which the Trump administration has delayed.

Send comments to FedLeadStrategy@nih.gov by November 24. HUD has a bunch of formatting requirements so read through the above link if you’re planning to submit comments.

Congressional Infrastructure Caucus
Caucuses, like the glee club, allow like-minded representatives who share interests to find friends and swap ideas. The newest group in Congress focuses on infrastructure. Like the Climate Solutions Caucus, mentioned above, it’s a bipartisan group. Founding members include Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (R-TN), Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), and Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA).

There are partisan groups promoting infrastructure as well. The New Democrat Coalition, founded two decades ago, recently released its principles for rebuilding America’s infrastructure.

EPA Nominees Pass Through Committee
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Trump administration’s nominees to lead four EPA offices, including David Ross, a Wisconsin lawyer, for the Office of Water. The final step in confirmation is a vote by the whole Senate.

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.