Federal Water Tap, January 29: EPA Reverses Course – Again – on Pebble Mine

The Rundown

The EPA keeps in place an Obama-era order to prevent mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. Two senators propose renewing a newish water infrastructure loan program. The Bureau of Reclamation may be owed millions from users of California’s Central Valley Project. The GAO reports on hiring trained water system operators. And lastly, Scott Pruitt testifies at a Senate committee on Tuesday, hours before President Trump’s State of the Union speech.

“Based on that review, it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.” — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt acknowledging the ecological and economic value of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.

By the Numbers

46.4: Median age of water system operators in the United States, compared to 42.2 years for all occupations. (Government Accountability Office)

19: Large-capacity cesspools closed in 2017 in Hawaii, which has more such sewage pits than any state. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

News Briefs

Bristol Bay Reversal
Citing an “unacceptable risk” to the environment and “overwhelming” public opposition to mining, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would keep in place an Obama administration order that blocked mining in the Bristol Bay watershed, one of the world’s great salmon fisheries.

The decision is an about-face, suspending the Trump administration’s move last year to withdraw the Obama-era order that, in effect, prohibited mining of copper, gold, and molybdenum in the Pebble deposit in the upper reaches of the watershed.

What the decision does not do is end the potential for mining the Pebble deposit. Pebble Limited Partnership, the mine developer, was allowed to apply for a mining permit, which is part of Pruitt’s emphasis on due process. The developer submitted its application to the Army Corps on December 22. The corps will now do an environmental impact statement, and the EPA will not make a final ruling until May 2021.

Senators Propose Renewing Water Infrastructure Financing Program
Sens. John Hoeven (R-ND) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill to reauthorize the WIFIA program, which provides low-interest loans for water and sewer projects.

The bill increases funding for the program, which has broad bipartisan support — even though it has not finalized its first round of loans. Authorized funding would rise from $90 million in fiscal year 2019 to $140 million in 2024. Current funding is about $30 million, which the government can turn into more than $2 billion in loans. It can do this because only the amount at risk of default is included as a budget expenditure. The default rate for municipal water projects is quite small.

Supreme Court Rules on WOTUS Jurisdiction
In a decision that could lengthen the legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that challenges to the Waters of the United States rule should be heard in district courts, E&E News reports. The Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous.

The Obama administration issued the rule in 2015 in order to clarify which water bodies were subjected to Clean Water Act regulation. The rule was immediately challenged in both district and appeals courts.

Studies and Reports

Reclamation May Be Owed Millions
Water districts that move “non-project” water through federal canals in California may owe the U.S. government hundreds of millions of dollars from the transactions, according to an Interior Department inspector general’s report.

Non-project water is water not delivered under a contract from the Bureau of Reclamation. It is transferred between buyers and sellers using federal infrastructure.

Whether the bureau can collect money from these transfers — which generated between $192 million and $1 billion in revenue from 2012 to 2015, the report states — is uncertain. The inspector general recommended that department lawyers prepare a legal opinion on the matter.

“The potential revenue generated is so large that it is critical for the USBR to ensure it is administering the conveyance of non-project water as intended,” the report concludes.

GAO Looks at Water System Workforce
There is too little data to tell whether utility violations of federal drinking water and sewer regulations are a result of difficulty in hiring qualified operators, according to a Government Accountability Office report on water utility workforce problems.

The report, which looked at a small sample of 11 utilities, notes that most of the 11 reported difficulty in hiring qualified operators.

The report recommends that the EPA collect data on water utility workforce needs.

Speaking of Water Utility Workforce…
Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill to establish a grant program to help train the next generation of water system operators. The bill includes no dollar amounts, but would allow utilities to use the grants for apprenticeship, primary and secondary school education programs, and learning laboratories.

On the Radar

State of the Union
It’s on Tuesday. Trump is expected to speak about his infrastructure plan, the outlines of which were leaked last week.

Pruitt Testifies at Senate Hearing
The EPA administrator will visit the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 30 for an oversight hearing.

Coal Ash Disposal
The Tennessee Valley Authority will build a coal ash storage pit at the Shawnee Fossil Plant, in western Kentucky. The plant added emissions control equipment that will increase the amount of waste produced.

Drought Watch
After a week of strong storms, snowpack in Washington’s Cascades is back to normal. The northern Rockies are also tracking at average levels. The rest of the West is a mess. And forecasts show hot, dry weather for the next two weeks.

Parts of the southern Great Plains — the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas as well as southern Kansas — are now in “severe” drought, the second worst category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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.