Federal Water Tap, August 13: Trump Wildfire Tweet Inspires Policy

The Rundown

Commerce Department tries to facilitate water for firefighting in California, even if it’s not needed. The Army Corps opens a national levee database to the public and attempts to expand state permitting authority for the Clean Water Act. The USGS reports on nutrient flows in the Chesapeake Bay and algal toxins in Florida. In a revised hurricane forecast, NOAA scientists expect a less active year. The EPA releases an agenda for its PFAS meeting in North Carolina. And lastly, the Interior secretary champions U.S. energy production.

“You know what? You haven’t served and you don’t understand what energy is. I’d like to see your child have to fight for energy.” — Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary, responding to a protestor at the Freedom Conference, an annual event in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, hosted by The Steamboat Institute, a conservative group. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said that energy production in the United States — meaning solar and wind as well as oil and gas, he said — is an environmental, economic, and moral imperative. “I don’t want your kids and grandkids to ever see what I’ve seen. Ever. I would rather not have to deploy our troops overseas to fight for an energy resource we have here.”

By the Numbers

29,724: Miles of levees in a national database recently opened to the public. The database includes descriptions of levee systems, their risk rating, condition, statistics on people and land they guard, who operates and maintains them, and when they were built. (Army Corps of Engineers)

News Briefs

Fire Policy
Two days after President Trump tweeted that water in California should go toward putting out forest fires, the Commerce Department issued a directive saying that water should be used for “protection of life and property” above all else.

The order from Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, allows federal agencies to circumvent the Endangered Species Act and other statutes to divert water to firefighters. State officials, however, said they do not need such authority to fight the fires. They have not had any trouble accessing water, they said.

The Commerce Department press office did not respond to Circle of Blue’s questions about whether any agency had requested authority or if any water had been moved as a result of the order.

PolitiFact rated Trump’s tweets on the wildfire-water connection as False.

Army Corps Revises Clean Water Act Permitting
In a July 30 memo, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers took a step to allow states to oversee more Clean Water Act permits.

In this case, the permits are for dredging and filling waterways and wetlands, covered in Section 404 of the act. States can obtain authority to administer sections of the landmark law, but only two have done so for Section 404.

R.D. James, head of the Army Corps, says that state leaders told him they want to assume more permitting authority but have not done so because a lack of clarity over which waters would be state domain and which would be federal. James’ memo seeks to establish that boundary.

Studies and Reports

Salt Water Damages Cyanobacteria, Causes Release of Toxins
U.S. Geological Survey scientists tested the effect of salinity on cyanobacteria from Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, a source of the algal blooms plaguing the state this summer.

Fed by warming waters and nutrient runoff from farms, lawns, and septic systems, cyanobacteria can release harmful toxins into water bodies. Salt water aids that process by damaging the organism’s cells, federal scientists found.

The study shows that above certain salinities cell membranes weaken and begin to leak microcystin, a toxin. In Florida, that happens as the cyanobacteria move from the freshwater Lake Okeechobee into canals and toward saltier water near the coasts.

“Anytime they are moved out of the canal system and hit salt water, they begin that process,” Barry Rosen, the lead author on the study, told Circle of Blue.

The study looked at two forms of cyanobacteria. In the laboratory setting, Microcystis aeruginosa tolerated salinity up to 18 psu, a measure of salt concentration. Dolichospermum circinale was weakened above 7.5 psu. Sea water, by comparison, is 35 psu.

The location of that salinity threshold, where damage begins to occur to the cells, shifts daily and seasonally, depending on tides and the flow in the canals, Rosen said.

Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Data
Nitrogen and phosphorus flows into the Chesapeake Bay from manure and fertilizers generally declined between 1982 and 2012, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

NOAA Updates 2018 Hurricane Forecast
In a revised analysis, federal scientists say that the Atlantic Ocean will probably see fewer hurricanes than average this year.

The initial forecast, in May, called for one to four major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher). After a relatively calm early season, the updated forecast is for zero to two major storms. The reasons: cooler sea surface temperatures in the eastern Atlantic and wind patterns less favorable to storm formation.

Yakima Basin Water Projects Report
Federal, state, local, and tribal agencies identified ways to improve fish habitat and make more water available for farm irrigation in the Yakima River watershed of Washington state. Proposed projects in this draft report center on the river’s tributaries.

Public comments on the draft are being accepted through August 31. Comments can be sent to jason_romine@fws.gov.

Proposed Endangered Species Act Changes
The Congressional Research Service published a primer on three Trump administration proposals that would change how federal agencies determine which species are endangered and how they designate critical habitat.

On the Radar

PFAS Meeting in North Carolina
EPA released an agenda for its August 14 meeting on PFAS contamination.

The meeting will be held in Fayetteville, site of a Chemours manufacturing plant that is the source of GenX, a perfluorinated chemical, in the Cape Fear watershed.

In context: EPA Investigates Chemical Contamination of North Carolina River

Water Data Committee Charter Renewed
The Interior Department will renew the charter for the Advisory Committee on Water Information, an expert group that consults with the federal government on collecting and sharing water data.

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.

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