Federal Water Tap, January 2: What to Watch in 2018

The Rundown

The Interior Department ends a Klamath basin agreement between Indian tribes and farmers after Congress fails to act. The State Department, at the request of Alaska officials, looks at mining pollution in British Columbia. The Bureau of Reclamation considers ways to increase pumping from California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. The EPA’s financial assessment of companies that operate hazardous waste facilities is inadequate, a government watchdog says. The Army Corps studies responses to backbay flooding in New Jersey. And lastly, federal water actions to watch in 2018.

“The EPA’s ability to oversee self-insurance instruments is impaired, leaving the agency and taxpayers vulnerable to billions of dollars in financial risk and the public vulnerable to environmental risk.” — Conclusion from EPA inspector general’s investigation into the agency’s financial assessment of companies that operate hazardous sites.

By the Numbers

32 percent: Precipitation in the Rio Grande basin, compared to the 30-year average, for the first three months of the water year, which is October through December. Snowpack is even worse, at 20 percent of average. (NRCS)

News Briefs

End of the Upper Klamath Basin Agreement
Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke ended a water-sharing agreement between farmers, ranchers, tribes, and environmental groups in the upper Klamath River, in southern Oregon.

Zinke, according to the Federal Register posting, ended the agreement at the request of the Klamath Tribes, which saw no progress toward putting the deal into practice. Congress did not provide funding for watershed restoration projects that was designed to grease the wheels of collaboration.

The deal would have increased water flows into Upper Klamath Lake through an irrigation efficiency program and given farmers more certainty about water availability in the basin, which, in a dry year, is at the mercy of the tribes, holders of the highest priority rights.

Representatives from neither the Klamath Tribes nor the Klamath Water Users Association, an irrigator’s group, answered phone calls or email messages.

Congress’s failure to pass Klamath basin legislation led to the collapse, in 2016, of a related water-sharing and ecosystem restoration agreement.

State Department Acknowledges Alaska’s Concerns About Canadian Mine Pollution
The State Department is assessing how to protect Alaskan waters from runoff from Canadian mines, KTOO reports.

Alaska’s state leaders and congressional representatives have repeatedly raised concerns in the last two years that mines in British Columbia pose an unacceptable risk to the state’s rivers and salmon runs.

In a December 14 letter to the state’s lieutenant governor, the State Department said it would release findings from its review in April during a meeting of the International Joint Commission, the agency that oversees waters shared by Canada and the United States. The review will be coordinated with Global Affairs Canada, the country’s diplomatic agency.

In context: Alaska Seeks River Protections Against British Columbia Mines (An interview with Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott)

Reclamation Reviews Water System Operation in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
Reclamation will consider ways to “maximize” the amount of water pumped from California’s most important water body.

In a draft environmental study, Reclamation will review the operation of the Central Valley Project, which moves water from the mountains of northern California to farms, cities, and wildlife refuges to the south.

Public comments on the scope of the review and options to consider are due by February 1 and can be emailed to Katrina Harrison, kharrison@usbr.gov.

Studies and Reports

EPA’s Inadequate Financial Oversight of Hazardous Sites
The EPA needs to expand its financial analysis when assessing whether companies can pay, in the future, to clean up polluted industrial sites, according to a report from the agency’s inspector general.

In its analysis, the EPA does not ask about all potential environmental liabilities for companies that seek to “self-insure” their operations. This may result in more Superfund cleanups that are funded by taxpayer money. Regional offices often do not know about a company’s liabilities in other regions, the report states.

Self-insurance is cheaper for companies because they do not have to set aside money to pay for future cleanups. They must only give their word that they have enough assets to cover eventual costs.

New Jersey Flooding Study
The Army Corps of Engineers will study a slew of options — beach barriers, property buyouts, elevating homes, and others — for guarding New Jersey’s back bays against storm surges and sea-level rise flooding. The draft assessment is expected in January 2019.

On the Radar

What to Watch in 2018
As in the first year of the Trump administration, federal water actions will reflect the ongoing debate about the government’s extent and reach.

Start with high-profile drinking water regulations. Scott Pruitt, leader of the EPA, has promised a “war on lead,” and the agency says it will issue a draft Lead and Copper Rule in August. Before that happens, the agency will gather input on January 8 from trade organizations and government associations on what changes should be made.

The EPA is under a court order to publish, by October 31, draft regulations for another drinking water contaminant: perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel, matches, signal flares, and other explosives.

The EPA will also move forward with its attempt to rewrite the scope of the Clean Water Act and will face pressure from lawmakers on perfluorinated chemicals.

Congress will work on two major pieces of water-related legislation. One is a renewal of the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes funding for dams, levees, river restoration, and other Army Corps responsibilities. The other is the farm bill, which indirectly exerts powerful influence over water use and pollution through its provisions on crop insurance, conservation practices, and funding for efficient irrigation systems.

The Supreme Court, too, will take on water cases. In January, the high court hears oral arguments in two river basin disputes. Texas argues that New Mexico, by allowing farmers to pump groundwater, is taking too much water from the Rio Grande. NM Political Report previews New Mexico’s potential $1 billion liability and what else is at stake in the case.

The second case is Florida’s claim that Georgia is harming the Apalachicola Bay by withdrawing too much water. A legal expert appointed by the court to gather facts did not agree with Florida. In his advisory report last year he recommended the court favor Georgia’s position.

Infrastructure was supposed to be an arena of bipartisan compromise, but despite frequent chatter, no bill emerged. The administration’s early plans for a large private sector role now seem to be superseded by an emphasis on local funding.

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.