The high court hears arguments this week on the need to rebuild road culverts in Washington state to allow fish to migrate. The House Ag Committee releases a draft farm bill. Federal agencies sign a memo to quicken the environmental review of major infrastructure projects. The EPA finalizes a cleanup plan for a Superfund site on the San Jacinto River, near Houston. The EPA also accepts applications for billions in water infrastructure funding. Michigan senator applauds temporary shut down of Great Lakes oil pipeline. The Army Corps studies reservoir proposals in Florida and Texas. A Senate committee holds a hearing on groundwater regulation. And lastly, it’s water lobby week in D.C.
“I know a lot of these residents are very angry about what happened and they want answers and Congress through an investigation can provide those answers as to who knew what, when and where.” — Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) talking about flooding in Houston that occurred when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened reservoir gates during Hurricane Harvey. The release of water flooded thousands of homes downstream — a risk that Houston officials feel was not adequately communicated.
By the Numbers
$5.5 billion: Estimated loan funding available for the second round of WIFIA, a newish water infrastructure program. Letters of interest are due July 6. (EPA)
A dozen federal agencies and councils approved a memo that implements President Trump’s order to quicken the environmental review of big projects. The process, called One Federal Decision, designates a single agency to be in charge of the review process, which is now supposed to take no more than two years.
Farm Bill Draft
The House Agricultural Committee unveiled draft farm bill legislation, the major law that affects what Americans eat and how it’s produced.
But even that description does not cover the bill’s broad reach. The authorization for rural drinking water grants is planted in there. So are incentive programs to conserve water on the farm.
The draft bill employs carrots rather than sticks to entice farmers to prevent pollution of drinking water sources. The bill authorizes higher payments for practices that result in water quality benefits off the farm. The bill does not mention how improvements would be measured.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would cost $786 billion over 10 years.
San Jacinto Superfund Decision
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a $115 million cleanup plan for a dioxin-contaminated Superfund site on the San Jacinto River, near Houston. Two companies agreed to excavate some 212,000 tons of contaminated sediment and will take an estimated 29 months to complete the work. International Paper and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. had favored capping the site, a cheaper alternative.
Line 5 Shutdown
Because of uncertainty about damage from a boat anchor and bad weather that is delaying an assessment, Enbridge officials temporarily stopped the flow of oil through Line 5, MLive reports. Line 5 crosses the Great Lakes at the Straits of Mackinac.
Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, had prodded the company and federal agencies over the weekend to take action. The pipeline was dented, presumably in a boating accident that also damaged electric power lines.
“It is simply reckless and irresponsible to operate Line 5 under the current weather conditions,” Peters tweeted. “I was able to work with PHMSA in pressing Enbridge to suspend Line 5 operations through the storm.” PHMSA is the federal agency that oversees pipelines.
Studies and Reports
EPA Research Division Providing ‘Timely and Relevant’ Analysis
That was the conclusion of an EPA inspector general’s office audit of a research division that studies water quality and drinking water.
The Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research program (2017 budget: $106 million) delivered analyses on time and for relevant policy questions, according to the report. Some of those projects: testing of drinking water for pollutants and assessing “connectivity” of streams and wetlands, which is important for the Clean Water Act.
Texas Reservoir Study
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin studying the environmental effects of building Cedar Ridge reservoir, which will supply Abilene, Texas with about 34,400 acre-feet per year via a 34-mile pipeline. A draft review is expected in 2021.
If it goes ahead as planned, the project will drown 29 miles of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River plus 43 miles of tributary streams.
Texas is no stranger to new reservoirs. In January, the Army Corps approved the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek project, a reservoir that will supply about 120,000 acre-feet per year to cities north of Dallas.
Speaking of the San Jacinto
The U.S. Geological Survey released an app with real-time water quality and flow data for the Lake Houston watershed. The reservoir, some 25 miles northeast of Houston, holds back the San Jacinto and provides the city with drinking water.
The Army Corps will review a Florida water district’s plans for a reservoir that will regulate water flows into the Everglades. The reservoir will be able to store 240,000 acre-feet.
Correction: Last week’s edition incorrectly identified the EPA’s drinking water needs assessment as $472 million. It should have read $472 billion.
On the Radar
Salmon and Road Culverts
On April 18, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could require Washington state to spend hundreds of millions or more to redesign road culverts that block fish migration. A lower court ruled that the state violated an 1854 treaty that gives Indian tribes fishing rights. The court ordered the state to fix existing culverts within 17 years.
The state counters with several arguments: that the culverts were designed in line with standards set by the federal government, that replacing state-owned culverts would “make no difference” to salmon populations, and that the money, some $2 billion by its count, would be better spent on other measures to improve salmon habitat.
Other observers, including lawyers for the United States, which brought the suit on behalf of the tribes, dispute Washington’s cost estimate and argue that replacing culverts will indeed help salmon.
Reps for water industry organizations flock to Washington this week to lobby Congress on water issues. It’s a big tent event: rural water, water recycling, sewer agencies, engineering and planning groups, and others. They will knock on office doors and host a series of briefings to ask Congress to increase infrastructure and research funding and include water quality protections in the farm bill.
On April 18, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works discusses the state and federal roles in groundwater regulation. Questions about federal oversight over groundwater have emerged recently in lawsuits over the Clean Water Act and a U.S. Forest Service directive, later withdrawn, on groundwater management for its units.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “detectives” will be in the spotlight at the agency’s annual conference on disease investigations, taking place April 16 to 19. At least one presentation will look at testing and tracking Legionella.
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