Federal Water Tap, January 8: U.S. Supreme Court Hears Two River Basin Disputes
The EPA sets rules for public notification after sewer overflows in the Great Lakes basin and removes three sites from the Superfund list. The U.S. Geological Survey connects saltier streams to lead in drinking water. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists new endangered species. The Congressional Research Service looks at a recent lawsuit over reserved rights to groundwater. The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments today in two river basin disputes while NOAA scientists release their 2017 weather disaster analysis. A Senate committee holds a water infrastructure hearing. And lastly, President Trump addresses the annual Farm Bureau convention this week.
“Road salt usage has been established as a major contributor to chloride increases in urban streams. Because of this, chloride trends have been most dramatic in cold-weather months, especially in snow-affected areas of the U.S.” — U.S. Geological Survey study on rising salt concentrations in streams. The study connected the more-corrosive water to lead in drinking water.
By the Numbers
3: Sites removed from the Superfund list in 2017 after completed cleanups. One of those completed is in Perdido, Alabama, site of a train derailment in 1965 that contaminated groundwater with benzene. (EPA)
158: Communities in the Great Lakes watershed that have permits to dump sewage into the basin from combined sewers. (EPA)
Great Lakes Sewage Overflows
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized rules that outline public notices that sewage treatment plant operators must do when they spill sewage into the Great Lakes.
Required by Congress, the rules stipulate that treatment plants use signs, public notices, and annual reports to disclose when and where they discharge from combined sewers — those that carry both sewage and stormwater. Public health departments must be notified no more than four hours after a discharge.
The rule applies to all 158 communities that have combined sewer overflow permits, many of which discharge into Great Lakes tributary rivers.
Endangered Species Listings
The Black Warrior waterdog: endangered.
The Foskett speckled dace: recovering.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a number of final decisions and proposals for listing and delisting endangered species.
The Black Warrior waterdog, a type of salamander found only in Alabama’s Black Warrior River, is being harmed by polluted water from urban runoff, forestry, and coal mining. The service designated 420 miles of streams as critical habitat.
The service also proposes listing the Barrens topminnow, a four-inch fish from Tennessee, as endangered.
Meanwhile, the Foskett speckled dace, a fish native to Oregon, is doing well enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes removing it from the ESA. Comments on the proposal are due March 5 and can be submitted via www.regulations.gov using docket number FWS-R1-ES-2017-0051.
Studies and Reports
Saltier Streams, More Corrosive Water
U.S. streams are getting saltier, according to a U.S. Geological Survey analysis. Worse, saltier water is more corrosive, and the study found a connection between increasing salt concentrations and water utility violations of federal drinking water standards for lead.
The trend was particularly noticeable in urban areas, where use of salt to keep roads clear of ice is helping to push up salt levels in streams, especially in winter.
The relationship between saltier source water and lead violations need closer study, the researchers cautioned, saying that the study results were highly uncertain. Further analysis would need to look at water treatment processes and other chemicals in source water, which are contributing factors. Drinking water regulations should also consider seasonal changes in water quality, the researchers argue.
The Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress that analyzes policy, published a legal briefing on what might be an influential groundwater rights case in California.
The Ninth Circuit ruled in March that the federal reserved rights doctrine applies to groundwater, in this case groundwater claimed by the Agua Caliente tribe. Reserved rights have long been used for rivers, but never before applied to a tribe’s groundwater claims. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the water agencies on the other side of the lawsuit.
The ramifications of this precedent are debated, but CRS notes that the decision “appears to expand, at least in the Ninth Circuit, the scope of federal preemption of state water law by expressly including groundwater.”
On the Radar
Supreme Court Hears Two River Disputes
Oral arguments begin today for two cases: Texas suing New Mexico for reducing Rio Grande flows by pumping too much groundwater; and Florida accusing Georgia of withdrawing too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. SCOTUS blog, via the links above, previews the arguments in both cases.
Weather Disasters of 2017
NOAA experts hold a press conference today, January 8, to discuss billion-dollar weather disasters of 2017 and summarize the year’s temperature and precipitation trends. For the first nine months of 2017, the U.S. was on record pace for billion-dollar disasters.
Trump to Speak at American Farm Bureau Convention
Today, the president is scheduled to address the bureau’s annual convention, in Nashville. Expect comments on the Waters of the U.S. rule and rolling back regulatory overreach.
Water Infrastructure Hearing
On January 10, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works holds a hearing on America’s water infrastructure needs.
On Jan 17 and 18, a federal advisory committee on water data holds a public meeting in Reston, Virginia, at the headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey. On the agenda is discussion of an initiative to connect isolated water databases.
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). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton