Federal Water Tap, December 17: The Biggest Water Week This Year: WOTUS, Colorado River, Farm Bill, and More

The Rundown

The EPA proposes to diminish the scope of the Clean Water Act. The Bureau of Reclamation sets a deadline for a Colorado River drought plan. Ryan Zinke resigns as Interior secretary. Congress agrees to a farm bill. The Bureau of Reclamation reports on tribal water use in the Colorado River basin. The Energy Department announces funds for a $100 million desalination research center. A New York senator calls for a quicker phase-out of PFAS foams at commercial airports. The Arctic is changing rapidly, says a NOAA report. The Army Corps looks to invite private sector financing for water infrastructure projects. The CDC traces E. coli-tainted lettuce to a California farm pond. A U.S.-Canada commission reports on the ecological consequences of a Great Lakes oil spill. The EPA plans to release a lead strategy this week. And lastly, the CDC wants to study the health implications of water main breaks.

“While we can’t stand here together to celebrate the completion of the DCPs this year, I can report that we are closer than we’ve ever been to completing the job. If I have one message for you all to take away from my remarks today, it is this. Close isn’t done. Only done will protect this basin.” — Brenda Burman, head of the Bureau of Reclamation, speaking at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas. DCP stands for drought contingency plan: the blueprints for how each state will reduce reliance on the river. Burman gave the states a January 31 deadline to complete their plans.

By the Numbers

2.8 million acre-feet: Settled and unresolved water rights claims by 10 Indian tribes in the Colorado River basin. Those rights are some of the most protected from shortages. The report, which looked at current and future use of tribal water rights, found that water supply variability and increasing water use in the Upper Basin states will have a more significant effect on basin shortages than tribal use. (Bureau of Reclamation)

In context: In Drying Colorado River Basin, Indian Tribes Are Dealmakers

10: Pilot projects to be selected to test private-sector partnerships in financing and building federal water infrastructure. (Army Corps of Engineers)

$100 million: Funding for a desalination research center. The center will study low-cost, energy-efficient ways of removing salts from seawater, oil and gas produced water, and brackish groundwater for use by agriculture, utilities, and the energy industry. An informational webinar will be held January 7 and submission deadlines for entities wanting to host the center begin February 7. (Department of Energy)

News Briefs

Redefining Waters of the United States
Arguing that landowners can best manage their land and offering a larger role for the states, the Trump administration proposed shrinking the scope of the Clean Water Act, the country’s foremost water pollution protection statute.

Hardest hit will be wetlands and ephemeral streams, which are those that flow only after a rain storm and are particularly prevalent in the western states. The rule exempts groundwater, farm ditches, and stormwater infrastructure.

In justifying the rule, the EPA included an economic analysis, but unlike the Obama administration, the agency did not complete a scientific assessment of which water features deserve protection from pollution and destruction.

The proposal is a milestone, but not an endpoint. When published in the Federal Register, public comments will be accepted for 60 days. Legal observers then expect lawsuits challenging the rule.

In context: Clean Water Rule Repeal Cannot Come at a Pen Stroke

Congress Seals Farm Bill Deal
Farm and utility groups praised a deal struck by congressional negotiators for a farm bill that preserves conservation programs and adds billions of dollars for water protections.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says that the bill “protects against cuts to total conservation funding and retains the full farm bill suite of conservation programs.” The coalition lists the key conservation provisions.

The American Water Works Association, which represents the water utility industry, praised allocations to protect land and water from contamination. Ten percent of Natural Resources Conservation Service funding goes toward source water protection — $4 billion over 10 years.

Reclamation Sets Colorado River Basin Deadline
The head of the Bureau of Reclamation told Colorado River basin officials that the seven states in the watershed need to come up with final plans by the end of January for voluntarily reducing their use of the river — or the federal government will do it for them.

No one in the basin wants that. The deadline adds an incentive for states to complete a process for addressing declining Lake Mead levels that has extended several years. The big reservoir — a keystone for water supplies in the Southwest — is 38 percent full. Lake Powell, a sister reservoir upstream, is 42 percent full.

“To date, Interior is very supportive and extremely patient with the pace of progress of the [drought contingency plan, or DCP],” Brenda Burman told attendees of the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas. “The delay increases the risk for us all. We need to ensure that the risks of lake level declines to critically low elevations are addressed with or without the DCP.”

Patience has limits, and Burman said Reclamation’s will run out on January 31. After that date, the bureau will give states 30 days to recommend ways to reduce demands on Lake Mead, and then it will decide which changes to implement for next year. Reclamation’s parent agency, the Interior Department, controls water deliveries in the Lower Basin.

“If we go down this path, and I want to emphasize that it is absolutely not our preferred course of action, but if we do, we will give the states 30 days for those submissions,” Burman said. “The Department will take those submissions and decide on a course of action before the August determination on 2020 operations.”

Arizona and California are the two states yet to reach an agreement about how cuts will be handled within their borders.

Zinke Resigns
Amid multiple investigations into ethics violations, Ryan Zinke will step down as the head of the Interior Department.

Zinke’s interim replacement and likely successor is his deputy, David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for many of the industries and organizations that he now oversees: western water districts and oil and gas firms.

Senator Urges Quicker Action on Firefighting Foams at Airports
Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) told the leader of the Federal Aviation Administration that the agency needs to implement new water-protection rules more quickly.

The FAA reauthorization bill that President Trump signed in October allows commercial airports to use firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS chemicals. These chemicals have contaminated groundwater, rivers, lakes, and drinking water of millions of Americans.

The bill gives the FAA three years to change the firefighting foam regulations, but Gillibrand wants immediate action to protect water sources.

“I urge you to act expeditiously in order to end the contamination of America’s water systems with this toxic chemical,” Gillibrand wrote.

Studies and Reports

Lead Rules Oversight
The EPA will change its annual reviews of public water systems to ensure that state agencies are checking compliance with federal lead rules for drinking water.

The Office of the Inspector General, after a July 2018 report criticizing the agency’s “collegial” relationship with state regulators, suggested the change.

In context: In Flint Water Crisis, EPA’s Friendly Relationship with State Regulators Delayed Use of Legal Authority

Great Lakes Oil Spills
More research needs to be done on the ecological effects of oil spills in freshwater environments, according to a report from the International Joint Commission, the binational body that recommends solutions to water issues shared by Canada and the United States.

Other recommendations from the IJC include: better monitoring for hydrocarbons in the Great Lakes and continued oil spill response planning. Seasonal changes in the Great Lakes — shifts in water currents as well as the buildup of winter ice — complicate spill response.

EPA Water Infrastructure Loan Program Needs Better Oversight
The WIFIA loan program needs to collect better financial and public health data, according to an inspector general’s report.

The data could be used to justify expanding or contracting the lending program that was first authorized in 2014.

Arctic Report Card
Warning Signals for A Rapidly Changing Region: The Arctic region is experiencing rapid environmental change, according to NOAA’s annual assessment of the northernmost latitudes.

The Arctic is undergoing its “most unprecedented transition in human history,” said Emily Osborne with NOAA’s Arctic research program.

Warming in the region coincides with decreasing sea ice, decreasing snow on the land surface, increasing summertime river flows, and an increase in toxic algal blooms in coastal waters.

E. Coli Outbreak Traced to California Farm Pond
CDC investigators traced the strain of E. coli linked to tainted romaine lettuce to a farm in Santa Barbara County, California.

Investigators found the bacteria in sediment from a farm reservoir at Adam Bros. Farming Inc.

The outbreak has sickened 59 people in 15 states. Investigators continue to look for other contamination sources, and the CDC warns consumers not to eat romaine lettuce from Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Barbara counties.

EPA Brings Back Great Lakes Advisory Board
The board advises the EPA on a multi-agency Great Lakes restoration program, which receives roughly $300 million per year in federal funding. The board’s charter expired in June 2018. It was first chartered in 2012.

The 15-member board had bipartisan support in Congress.

On the Radar

EPA Lead Strategy Coming This Week
The EPA will release its strategy for responding to lead in drinking water, paint, soils, and other environmental sources, the agency’s acting administrator told The Hill.

The strategy is not a set of regulations. The EPA has been working on revising lead-in-drinking-water rules for years now, with no proposal to show for it. A draft of those rules is expected in February 2019.

CDC Wants to Study Health Effects of Water Main Breaks
The CDC proposes to study the risk of gastrointestinal illness and respiratory disease after water main breaks and other drops in water pressure that could introduce bacteria into pipes.

It would be the first study of its kind in the United States.

The study, if approved, will focus on customers from seven water utilities and last 36 months.

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.

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). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton

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