Federal Water Tap, September 11: Reclamation Misspent Funds on California’s Delta Tunnels Planning, Investigators Say

The Rundown

Reclamation subsidized planning costs for farmers and cities that get water from the Central Valley Project. A senator questions the economic analysis the EPA used in revising a contentious water rule. The House approves a budget amendment that would neuter the EPA’s ability to enforce Chesapeake Bay water pollution targets. Baltimore submits a $1.6 billion plan to upgrade its sewer system to comply with the Clean Water Act. NOAA creates a new permit for desalination infrastructure within a national marine sanctuary off the California coast. And lastly, President Trump signs a $15 billion Hurricane Harvey aid package.

“We are concerned that the absence of transparency displayed by [Bureau of Reclamation] during the planning phase of the [Bay-Delta Conservation Plan] will be perpetuated in the future.” — Conclusion from an inspector general report into financial wrongdoing by the Bureau of Reclamation in planning a pair of tunnels to divert water around California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

By the Numbers

$15.25 billion: Size of Hurricane Harvey aid package approved by Congress and signed by the president. Additional federal funds will be on the table once the costs of recovery are clearer. The aid package also included an increase in the debt limit, and extensions of the budget and the National Flood Insurance Program, all until December 8. (House of Representatives)

$1.6 billion: Cost of Baltimore’s plan to reduce sewer overflows into rivers and sewage backups into houses. Baltimore submitted the revised plan, mandated by the EPA, to federal court to comply with the Clean Water Act. The order extends the timetable for addressing sewage problems from 2016 to 2030. These orders, called consent decrees, often cost large cities billions of dollars to fix inadequate sewer systems and are a big driver of water affordability problems. (Department of Justice)

127: Number of recommendations that a government watchdog has made in the last decade that the EPA has not implemented. Three-quarters of the recommendations deal with managing grants, regulating drinking water contaminants, and cleaning up hazardous waste sites. An example for water: the EPA has not fully implemented guidelines suggested in 2013 for overseeing regional farm pollution programs. (Government Accountability Office)

News Briefs

Senator Questions EPA Analysis of WOTUS Rule Benefits
Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the EPA administrator for documents related to the Trump administration’s repeal of a contentious water rule.

Carper is concerned about reports, both news reports and disclosures by agency employees to his staff, that EPA political appointees ordered economic benefits of the rule be erased during an internal review.

In its push to repeal the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule, which defined the water bodies that are subject to federal oversight, Trump’s EPA redid the economic analysis that underpins the rule. Any major rule such as WOTUS that undergoes revision requires such analysis.

The EPA’s revised analysis showed that repealing the rule would be more beneficial to the U.S. economy than keeping it in place. See this Bloomberg BNA story for more details.

House Votes to Neuter EPA Oversight of Chesapeake Bay
The House voted 214 to 197, largely along party lines, to bar the EPA from enforcing water pollution targets for the Chesapeake Bay. The provision is an amendment to an EPA and Interior Department spending bill.

This is the second consecutive year that he House has approved the amendment, proposed both times by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). The amendment “prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency from using any funds to take retaliatory, or EPA described ‘backstop’ actions, against any of the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in the event that a state does not meet the goals mandated by the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.”

Though it again passed the House, Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, an amendment opponent, says that there is not the same support in the Senate. “We don’t expect it to be in the final funding bill, but we’re not letting our guard down,” she told Circle of Blue.

Senators Request Funding for Firefighting Chemical Contamination
Seven senators asked colleagues on the Senate budget committee to fund health studies and environmental assessments of a class of chemicals called PFASs, which are used to manufacture firefighting foams, among other goods.

The senators who signed the letter all represent states — Colorado, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington — in which PFASs used on military bases or industrial facilities have contaminated groundwater.

In context: Nonstick chemicals slipped into water, causing health, environmental, regulatory mess.

Desalination Infrastructure in a National Marine Sanctuary
NOAA announced that it will create a new “special use” permit to allow the installation of desalination pipelines in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, off the California coast. Pipelines in this case means those for transporting ocean water inland or disposing of brine from the desalination facility. The permit would be issued after state and federal environmental reviews. An annual rent will be paid by any company laying a pipeline on the seabed or burying it below ground. Rent equals $0.02 per cubic inch of pipeline within the sanctuary.

Studies and Reports

Investigators Question Bureau of Reclamation Spending
This case of government misappropriation is a bit convoluted, but bear with me.

The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Central Valley Project, a canal system in California that diverts water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and delivers it to municipal, industrial, and farm users in addition to wildlife refuges. These contractors were supposed to pay the cost of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, a project to build a new water diversion and restore 150,000 acres of wetland and other habitat.

Reclamation instead paid $50 million of the planning costs — costs that should have been borne by the water users under a “beneficiary pays” principle. The subsidy was not disclosed in annual financial reports. Investigators said that Reclamation “could not give a valid rationale for providing the subsidy” other than “the water contractors asked [Reclamation] to pay.”

Interior Department Lawyer Clears Path for Mojave Groundwater Project
The Interior Department’s lawyer reversed the department’s 2011 legal opinion that required a proposed groundwater pumping project in the Mojave Desert to get a federal permit, the Desert Sun reports.

Trash Cleanup After Hurricanes
Mounds of garbage, awaiting pick up, line streets today in Houston. The Congressional Research Service outlines the role of federal and state agencies in removing debris after a disaster. Debris can “lead to future environmental, health, or safety problems, such as groundwater contamination,” the report notes.

On the Radar

Idaho Public Hearings
Idaho officials are seeking authority to write and enforce pollution discharge permits under the Clean Water Act. This power, called primacy, is held by 46 states. The EPA will hold five public meetings in the state this week to review the proposed transfer of power.

Aluminum Limits
The EPA will hold a webinar to go over a recently proposed update to its standards for protecting fish and other water creatures from harmful aluminum. The webinar is September 14 and registration is free.

Public comments on the updated standards are being accepted through September 26.

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.