Federal Water Tap, February 5: Every Week Is Infrastructure Week

The Rundown

The EPA administrator testifies before a Senate committee and then delays the WOTUS rule. President Trump dangles a huge infrastructure investment amount in his State of the Union speech. Bipartisan bills address water infrastructure financing. The CDC investigates a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a Memphis hotel. And lastly, hurricane researchers bump up Harvey rainfall numbers in latest assessment.

“I believe that as we consider infrastructure in the first quarter of this year and as we head into the rest of 2018, investing in infrastructure changes to eradicate lead from our drinking water within a decade should be a goal of this body and, I think, a goal of the administration. It’s something I’ve mentioned to the president. The president is very supportive of that and we look forward to working with you to declare a war on lead in our drinking water.” — Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, addressing the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on January 30. Pruitt called lead in drinking water “terribly troubling” but gave no details on the administration’s plans for a response.

By the Numbers

60.5 inches: Rainfall from Hurricane Harvey at a weather station in Nederland, Texas. Harvey produced the largest rainfall totals on record in the United States. Radar estimates pegged the totals even higher — as much as 70 inches. (National Hurricane Center)

$125 billion: Latest damage estimate for Harvey, which, when adjusted for inflation, ranks second among U.S. hurricane disasters, behind Katrina. The estimated range of Harvey’s costs, which are still being tallied, is between $90 billion and $160 billion. (National Hurricane Center)

2.3 percent: Decline in total storage capacity of six major reservoirs that supply New York City. The decline, measured from the date construction was completed, is due to sediment buildup. The oldest reservoir was constructed 105 years ago. The youngest, 55 years ago. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Waiting for Public Works

“Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—”
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

So it is with the administration’s infrastructure proposal. Last week, President Trump mentioned infrastructure again, in the State of the Union, where he listed two goals for the pending proposal: generate $1.5 trillion in investment and shorten regulatory review and permitting.

As his advisers have stated, the dollars “generated” will be primarily from local, state, and private partners. For water systems, which were not mentioned in the State of the Union (Trump said “waterways”), the plan seems to be to expand existing loan programs.

Will the design be revealed this week? Maybe. Every week is infrastructure week, policy wonks joke on Twitter. In this immense confusion, we know that much to be true.

Water Infrastructure Financing
A pair of bills in Congress drew less attention, but water groups have split opinions on them. The bipartisan bills, in both the House and Senate, would blend two existing financing programs: the state revolving funds and WIFIA. It allows states greater discretion in selecting projects for funding.

Faster Permitting for Louisiana Project
Meanwhile, state and federal officials are working together to quicken the permitting process for a project that will use sediment diverted from the Mississippi River to rebuild coastal land, the Times-Picayune reports. Authorities will attempt to have permits in place for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion by the end of 2020.

Pruitt’s Testy Testimony
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The hearing was held to review the EPA’s performance in his first year.

Two views of the agency’s work were apparent. Republicans applauded Pruitt’s goals of balancing environmental protection and economic development, saying that the Obama administration had “lost its way” with a “regulatory rampage.”

Democrats roasted Pruitt for trying to neuter the agency. They wanted answers to questions about employee morale, chemical regulation, air emissions, and lead rules. “Spare us the platitudes,” Sen. Tom Carper asked.

Pruitt, though, provided few details. He did offer a timeline for the agency’s attempt to rewrite which water bodies are regulated by the Clean Water Act, called the WOTUS rule. Pruitt said that a proposed substitute rule would come out in April or May and would be finalized by end of 2018.

A day after his Senate appearance Pruitt authorized a two-year delay for the WOTUS rule. The EPA and the Army Corps, which also has Clean Water Act jurisdiction, argue that the delay will provide “continuity and regulatory certainty” while they rewrite the rules.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, seemingly involved in every lawsuit against the administration, said that he would lead a “multistate coalition” to challenge the decision in court.

Lead in School Water Fountains
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) introduced a bill to establish a $5-million-dollar-per-year EPA grant program for replacing lead plumbing in school drinking fountains. Language establishing similar programs is included in four larger water infrastructure bills already in Congress.

Studies and Reports

CDC Investigates Memphis Legionnaires’ Disease Outbreak
In June 2017, an outbreak occurred at a hotel in Memphis, the CDC reports. Sixteen people were hospitalized and one died. The outbreak’s most likely source was a hotel pool and hot tub.

The investigation, which involved people who had stayed at the hotel and lived abroad, shows the challenges of conducting outbreak investigations and the need for quick identification and collaboration among local, state, and federal health agencies, the CDC concludes.

In context: Risks Grow for Deadliest U.S. Drinking Water Hazard

Defense Department and Climate Change
The Defense Department submitted a report to Congress on vulnerabilities to climate change at more than 3,500 military sites and installations worldwide.

The report, based on a survey that asked yes/no questions about whether a site had been impact by severe weather, showed that drought was the most commonly noted risk, mentioned in one in five responses. Respondents said that half of the sites in the survey had not been affected by drought, extreme temperatures, wind, flooding, or fire.

The report also collected data on the acreage and assets that are within 12 feet of mean sea level.

Harvey’s Records
Hurricane Harvey produced the largest rainfall totals in United States history, according to a National Hurricane Center assessment. The report examines the meteorological conditions that led Harvey to stall over the Texas coast.

On the Radar

IJC on Fertilizers in Lake Erie
The commission that oversees waters shared by the U.S. and Canada will release a report on February 13 on fertilizer use in the western basin of Lake Erie. Learn about the findings via a webinar that the IJC is hosting. Registration is free.

Glen Canyon Meeting
A federal work group on managing Glen Canyon Dam will meet on February 14 and 15 in Phoenix. On the agenda: basin hydrology in this dry winter, invasive species, scheduling high-flow water releases from the dam, and scientific studies.

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.