California senator champions a water affordability bill. The EPA wants to reassess cost-benefit analysis. Defense spending authorization bill addresses firefighting chemicals and military water use. The House passes an Army Corps authorization while a committee moves forward an EPA spending bill. The TVA changes how it manages coal ash at one of its electric plants. A USGS report summarizes eight years of research into the consequences of nutrient pollution on stream health. Another USGS report connect urban land use with greater pollution in the Edwards Aquifer of central Texas. High-tide floods are happening more frequently. And lastly, after the hottest May on record in the U.S., the National Weather Service unveils an interactive heat-risk forecast map.
“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause coastal high tide flooding. High tide flooding causes frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure. Such coastal flooding is increasing in frequency, depth and extent in many areas of the U.S. due to ongoing increases in local relative sea level.” — Summary of a NOAA report on high-tide flooding in the U.S., which broke a record last year for most flood days. The report found that the fastest rate of increase in high-tide flood days is occurring in the southeastern Atlantic coast.
By the Numbers
5.2: Degrees Fahrenheit the average temperature in the contiguous United States was above the 20th-century average. It was the warmest May on record. (NOAA)
$100 million: Reduction in the EPA 2019 budget in the appropriations bill that passed out of committee. (House Appropriations)
Water Affordability Act
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced a bill to establish a pilot program for helping poor families pay water and sewer bills.
The Water Affordability Act would provide grants to 10 utilities that have signed federal consent decrees for sewer system upgrades. Families that have high “environmental risk” scores — meaning living near polluting facilities — are eligible for subsidies, too.
The consent decrees often require utilities to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars on massive underground tanks and expanded treatment works. The orders have also caused sewer bills in these cities — Atlanta, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Seattle, to name a few of the 38 utilities that have signed these agreements — to skyrocket.
Households that would be eligible for the pilot program include those with at least one person who receives benefits from one of a number of existing federal aid programs (food stamps, SSI, TANF) or households that are below 150 percent of the state poverty level.
The bill does not include any request for funding.
In the name of “consistency,” his policy guide star, Scott Pruitt, the EPA leader, is considering overhauling how the agency evaluates the costs and benefits of its rules. The agency is seeking public comment should change its approach to these assessments, which are required by the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water, and other environmental statutes.
One question the EPA is posing: should the agency have a uniform definition for “cost,” “benefit,” “reasonable,” “feasible,” and other terms that contribute to the analysis?
The Federal Register notice states that, in response to the agency’s request for comment on regulations that are ripe for revision, a “common theme” among industry was complaint over how the EPA calculates costs.
Perfluorinated Chemicals in 2019 Defense Bill
The House passed the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that sets spending priorities in fiscal year 2019. (The bill does not appropriate the funds; that comes separately.)
Included in the bill is a stipulation that the Defense Department brief the House Committee on Armed Services no later than March 1, 2019, on the department’s efforts to develop a fire retardant that does not contain fluorine chemicals. The use of such chemicals in existing fire-suppressing foams resulted in widespread contamination of groundwater, lakes, and rivers, not only near military bases but fire stations, too.
The bill also directs the Defense Department to report on efforts to reduce water use at military bases.
In drafting the bill, the House Committee on Armed Services noted concerns about sewage and trash in the Tijuana River, which flows from Mexico and enters the U.S. near a Navy aircraft landing strip.
Sewage pollution forced the Navy to relocate in-water training exercises, while debris in the river channel is speeding bank erosion near the landing field. The committee wants a briefing on security risks from the pollution and actions that should be taken to resolve it.
Water Resources Act Passes House
By an overwhelming 408 to 2 margin, the House approved a water resources development bill.
The bill authorizes $3.5 billion in spending for Army Corps of Engineers projects, but it does not give out the money. That comes later in the annual appropriations bills. The full Senate has yet to act on its version, which is more expansive, including provisions on permitting and drinking water.
Idaho Gets Clean Water Act Primacy
The EPA granted Idaho authority to oversee Clean Water Act pollution discharge permitting in the state, a power known as primacy.
Idaho is the 47th state with NPDES primacy.
Studies and Reports
TVA Coal Ash Disposal
The Tennessee Valley Authority, a power producer for seven southeastern states, announced plans to convert coal waste disposal at one of its facilities from wet to dry. This is a result of environmental concerns about toxic metals in the waste that pollute rivers and groundwater.
The conversion at Cumberland Fossil Plant, a 2,470-megawatt coal plant, will result in a number of projects: a facility to dry the bottom ash, waste removal, and transport to a new on-site landfill that will cover 80 acres and operate through 2040, at current power generation levels.
Edwards Aquifer Pollution
The Edwards Aquifer, which supplies water to high-growth central Texas, is vulnerable to manmade contamination, especially in cities.
Urban areas had higher nitrate concentrations, higher pesticide concentrations, and a greater variety of pesticides in groundwater samples, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. The study, which took place from 2010 to 2016, was conducted in partnership with the San Antonio Water System, the city utility.
Nutrient Pollution in Streams
The U.S. Geological Survey published a report that details research from 2003 to 2011 on nutrient pollution on the health of rivers in eight U.S. farm regions. Increasing nitrogen and phosphorus in rivers harmed aquatic life, studies found. Buffer strips of uncultivated land along rivers resulted in a healthier ecosystem.
A companion publication looks at the connections between agriculture and water quality, drawing on research from national pollution monitoring program called NAWQA.
On the Radar
Army Corps Hearing
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works holds a hearing on June 13 to discuss the Army Corps’ practice of allowing local agencies to contract for “surplus water” from federal reservoirs.
The House passed a bill to authorize pulling back some $3 billion in unspent federal funds. President Trump asked for the authority on May 8.
Water-related rescissions are: $107 million from Hurricane Sandy relief, $50 million from USDA’s flood prevention work, $37 million from rural water and sewer grants, and $10 million for water quality research
Glen Canyon Dam Advisory Committee
The Interior Department is looking to fill open seats on a panel that advises the agency on operating Glen Canyon, one of the country’s largest dams and reservoirs.
Representatives of environmental groups, recreational groups, federal power purchase contractors, and others are encouraged to apply.
Nominations are due July 16. They can be sent via email to Brent Rhees, regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heat Risk Map
To kick off summer, the National Weather Service rolled out a map that shows the seven-day heat risk. The map is color-coded from no increased risk (green) to very high risk for all people (magenta).
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