Federal Water Tap, February 19: Spy Agencies Repeat Water Warning

The Rundown

America’s spy agencies warn that water scarcity and climate change are national security risks. The EPA wants guidance on how to regulate pollution of groundwater that flows into rivers, lakes, and oceans. The Trump administration releases a budget proposal and infrastructure investment principles — but Congress will have the final word. And lastly, a report that assesses phosphorus flows in the Lake Erie watershed has this message: bold action needed.

“The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent — and possibly upheaval — through 2018.” — Excerpt from the Worldwide Threat Assessment, an annual national security evaluation from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

By the Numbers

35: Minerals deemed critical to U.S. economic and national security, largely because the main source of supply comes from abroad. The list was required by a December 2017 executive order. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

What To Do About Certain Types of Groundwater Pollution?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking advice on how it should regulate the pollution of groundwater that is connected to rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The request for public comments comes amid a recent string of lawsuits from green groups that hope to use the Clean Water Act to cut down pollution from coal ash ponds, pipelines, and other discrete sources. The groups — and now the EPA — want to clarify circumstances under which surface water pollution via groundwater is governed by the Clean Water Act.

A court ruling in early February added urgency to the matter. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a sewage treatment facility in Maui needed Clean Water Act permits for injecting its wastewater into wells. Groundwater was carrying the waste into the Pacific. In a rare legal move, the Obama EPA filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiff’s position — which was that the sewage facility did require a permit.

In context: U.S. Courts Issue Contradictory Rulings on Groundwater and the Clean Water Act

The Budget Proposal
Presidential budgets are best thought of as messages. Because Congress decides where the money goes, a president can offer only suggestions. But that does not mean the message is meaningless. An idea often repeated has a better chance of being accepted as the way things are or ought to be.

President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget reflects his administration’s priorities, which means cutting government spending in certain areas: a 34 percent cut (compared to 2017) to the EPA, a 20 percent cut to the Army Corps, and a 16 percent cut to the Interior Department.

For rural water and sewer systems, the budget proposes eliminating the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grant program, which was funded at $509 million in 2017. The administration instead proposes a $1.2 billion loan program, eligibility for which would be expanded to include communities with up to 20,000 people.

The budget also recommends eliminating LIHEAP, which provides energy bill assistance to poor families. The administration argues that the $3.4 billion program is marked by fraudulent payments and duplicates state actions that prevent wintertime power shutoffs. The future of this program will be an item to watch, given that a LIHEAP-for-water is a policy prescription discussed as a remedy for rising water rates.

Other programs offered for elimination: Global Climate Change Program ($160 million), Community Development Block Grants ($3 billion), Washington Aqueduct (which supplies water to D.C. and northern Virginia, is operated by the Army Corps, and could be sold off).

Infrastructure Outline
Along with the budget the administration released a 55-page infrastructure outline. Trump then met with agency heads and the leaders of the congressional committees that will be responsible for drafting a bill to put the administration’s thoughts into practice.

The administration’s perspective is this: federal dollars are paying for projects that should be funded locally. The possibility of federal money encourages local agencies to delay initiatives to raise their own funds. Environmental reviews are too onerous, adding years to a project timeline.

The principles are meant to be a remedy. One hundred billion dollars in federal grants will be doled out to communities that raise money on their own. Fifty billion dollars will go to rural communities. How these allocations will be determined — or how water systems will be compared with roads, broadband, or railways — is not clear.

The principles also suggest specific changes to permitting: the EPA would lose its authority to veto a Clean Water Act 404 permit, the section that deals with filling in wetlands; environmental reviews would be conducted by one agency and take no more than two years; and NPDES permits, which authorize polluted discharges to water, would be extended from five years to 20 or 30 years.

These provisions would “significantly alter the environmental law framework,” according to an analysis by the law firm Arnold and Porter.

Studies and Reports

Threat Level: Water
As they have for the last decade, America’s spy agencies warned that climate change and water scarcity are threats to national security and international peace and stability. The warning was part of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, an annual document that summarizes key security risks.

Water and climate have been frequent factors in the report. Water was first mentioned in 2008, in relation to food production.

In context: U.S. Government Releases First Global Water Strategy

Phosphorus Inputs to Lake Erie
The International Joint Commission analyzed phosphorus flows into the western basin of Lake Erie, where the annual summer algal bloom is concerning for drinking water, recreation, and fisheries.

Farms are the largest source of phosphorus, but, encouragingly, fertilizer application rates have held steady or declined. However, a large amount of legacy phosphorus is stored in soil, and no-till farming practices, beneficial in reducing erosion and water loss, contribute to phosphorus runoff because the nutrient sits on top of the soil and is washed off during heavy rains.

The report recommends better data collection, monitoring, and analysis of phosphorus flows and inputs, especially the contribution of fertilizers compared to manure.

“Lake Erie has benefitted from bold action in the past and requires similar bold action today to ensure its health and value to the people of the basin into the future,” the report concludes.

On the Radar

Dredge Work
The Army Corps is soliciting proposals for reusing dirt and sediment dredged from lakes, rivers, and harbors. The Corps is authorized to fund 10 pilot projects. Proposals are due March 12.

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.