Federal Water Tap, July 16: FEMA Notes Failures In 2017 Hurricane Response

The Rundown

Emergency response agency was not prepared for three major hurricanes. NOAA forecasts a smaller Lake Erie algal bloom than last year. Senate Democrats introduce a bill to provide water infrastructure aid and quicker water quality testing for rural, minority, and tribal communities. The House passes a bill to simplify the process of transferring ownership of federal canals and dams to local agencies. The Department of Energy provides $21 million for solar desalination projects. House Democrats object to the EPA’s FOIA procedures. And lastly, USGS scientists monitor pesticide levels in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

“The response to the hurricanes demonstrated the need for emergency managers at all levels to improve collaboration with the critical infrastructure sectors. These disasters demonstrate that our current organizing structures are insufficient to promote this collaboration.” — Brock Long, FEMA administrator, describing the government’s botched response to Hurricane Maria. Critical infrastructure includes water, energy, healthcare, and communications, all of which failed in Puerto Rico.

By the Numbers

$21 million: Funding for 14 solar desalination projects, none of which is at commercial scale, that aim to reduce the cost of removing salt from water. (Department of Energy)

590 million gallons: Additional renewable biofuel that will be added to the nation’s gasoline supply in 2019, a 3 percent increase. (EPA)

$18.9 billion: Cost of Long Island Sound restoration through 2035. That estimate, however, does not include the cost for achieving earlier cleanup goals that have not yet been met. (GAO)

News Briefs

FEMA Fail
Federal emergency responders were not prepared for three major hurricanes in a row, according to an internal assessment of FEMA’s performance during the 2017 hurricane season.

“Existing plans were developed for the occurrence of a single incident, rather than concurrent incidents,” the assessment states.

Future plans will emphasize ways to better collaborate with local governments and private sector companies to quickly restore critical infrastructure that often crosses political jurisdictions: water treatment facilities, power grids, and telecommunications.

These are not new concerns. An expert council that advises the Department of Homeland Security on infrastructure warned of the risks of “cascading failures” in a 2016 report on water sector disaster resilience.

Those cascades were evident in Puerto Rico. Loss of phone service meant that even a week after Maria’s landfall FEMA did not know whether 37 hospitals or 24 wastewater facilities were operating.

Speaking of hurricane response, the EPA hosts a public webinar on August 8 with the head of Puerto Rico’s water utility. Eli Diaz-Atienza will share lessons from Hurricane Maria.

Yes, We Aim to Repeal the WOTUS Rule
The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers submitted another notice that they do, in fact, want to repeal the Obama administration’s rule for which waterbodies are protected by the Clean Water Act.

The Federal Register notice provides the public with additional chance for comment, which is due by August 13. Submit comments at www.regulations.gov under docket EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0203.

Water Infrastructure Aid Bill
Senate Democrats introduced the CLEARR Act, a bill that provides $1.5 billion dollars in grants over five years to rural towns and poor communities.

The bill also requires the EPA administrator to “develop a process” that protects drinking water quality for tribal, minority, and poor communities. Part of that process is quicker testing and reporting, a publicly available database with the results, more frequent inspections for violators, and technical assistance.

Reservoirs and the Endangered Species Act
House Republicans introduced the STORAGE Act, which amends the Endangered Species Act to prevent endangered species decisions from affecting reservoir operations. The legislation is part of a nine-bill package to amend the nation’s foremost species protection law.

The bill prohibits the Interior secretary from designating land or wetlands within a reservoir or canal as “critical habitat” for an endangered or threatened species.

House Passes Title Transfer Bill
The bill allows the Interior secretary to transfer ownership of dams, canals, and other federal facilities to local governments, irrigation districts, or Indian tribes. Facilities that produce hydropower sold by a federal agency are not eligible.

Officials in the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees these works, are on board with the idea, arguing that current title transfer procedures are too complex and costly and that transfers relieve the federal government from maintaining and upgrading old infrastructure. The House bill does allow Congress to veto a proposed transfer.

At least one Democrat wants to ensure that the transfer process is free from conflicts of interest, such as when Interior officials have worked with private sector clients that stand to acquire infrastructure.

Reclamation has transferred 30 projects since 1996.

Studies and Reports

Lake Erie Harmful Algae Forecast
NOAA expects the lake’s annual bloom to be medium size and smaller than in 2017. Whether the bloom is disruptive remains to be seen. Consequences to drinking water and recreation depend on variables such as wind speed and direction, and whether the algae release toxins.

Pesticides in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
The delta — the switchyard of California’s water supply system — is in poor health. That is well known. What is less clear is how heavy a blow pesticides are leveling.

The U.S. Geological Survey set out to provide answers. Researchers tested water and suspended sediment at five points in the delta for 154 pesticides. Pesticides were detected in all water samples, and samples showed a pesticide cocktail of between two and 25 compounds. Water was tested monthly between July 2015 and June 2016.

Government Reorganization
Congress is clearly interested in the Trump administration’s plans to reshape the executive branch, a process that could consolidate agencies and department functions and affect water infrastructure and wildlife management.

Members requested that the Government Accountability Office identify key questions that they should consider in the organizational shuffle. The GAO report slots those questions into four broad categories: the goals for a reorganization, the process for developing the proposal, the process for implementing it, and the personnel needed to keep the new structure functioning.

Congressional Research Service, meanwhile, produced a primer on the legal authority that underpins executive branch reorganization. Though Congress holds the power to create departments, moves within a department can be up to the White House’s discretion.

This week two Senate committees will hold hearings on the reorganization plan: Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on July 18, and Energy and Natural Resources on July 19.

On the Radar

House Democrats Want EPA FOIA Details
Having interviewed agency staff, House Democrats learned that EPA political appointees review Freedom of Information Act request that the agency deems are “politically charged.”

Democrats on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are requesting documents from the EPA that relate to the agency’s FOIA procedures.

A July 13 letter from Rep. Elijah Cummings to Rep. Trey Gowdy, his Republican counterpart on the committee, requests that Gowdy subpoena the EPA for the documents. The letter includes partial transcripts of an interview with Ryan Jackson, the EPA chief of staff, in which Jackson describes the agency’s review process. Jackson confirmed that the agency is using a “first in, first out” approach, in which the oldest request are handled first, even if they

Fluoride in Drinking Water
The CDC is seeking public comment on a proposed rule setting upper and lower limits for fluoride in drinking water. Submit comments through October 11 via www.regulations.gov under docket CDC-2018-0064.

Pennsylvania PFAS Meeting Agenda Posted
The EPA released the agenda for its community meeting on July 25 in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Five and a half hours are scheduled for the “listening session.”

This will be the agency’s second community meeting to discuss PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Horsham is near three military bases that are contamination sources.

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). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton

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