Russian operatives are accused of hacking water and energy utilities. Western senators introduce water bills, while California Republicans try to backdoor a dam expansion. A National Academy of Sciences review of a national climate change assessment finds it accurate and thorough. A Senate committee discusses western water issues. And lastly, the Department of Energy wants to develop a tech prize for lowering the cost of water.
“There have been hundreds of millions of dollars spent. But with the enormous growth that’s occurring all along the border, it’s caused the infrastructure to be taken to its limits. And as the infrastructure ages, it will collapse.” — Edward Drusina, commissioner of the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission, speaking about money spent in the Tijuana-San Diego region on sewage collection and treatment infrastructure. The IBWC oversees water disputes along the border, and sewage in the Tijuana River flowing across the border has caused…a stink.
By the Numbers
268: Counties declared drought disaster areas in 2018. Six states — Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas — account for 90 percent of the total. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
The Department of Homeland Security accused Russian operatives of hacking the business and operating systems of U.S. energy and water utilities, the New York Times reports.
The cyberattacks, which took place over the last two years, were more a case of breaking and entering than looting and vandalizing. But U.S. security experts said that the Russians had the capability to do damage.
The targets were deliberately chosen, says ICS-CERT, the government’s cyber response team.
Water utilities know that they are vulnerable. More and more computer systems that operate dams, pipelines, and water treatment plants are linked to the internet. But utilities generally do not have the technical skills to match the talent of state-sponsored hackers. See the article below for more details.
In context: Water Sector Prepares for Cyberattacks
Shasta Dam Maneuvers
California Republicans are attempting to insert a rider into a spending bill that would authorize increasing the height of the state’s largest reservoir, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Federal representatives, some of whom are connected to the project’s farm district beneficiaries, are pushing the approval even though state officials do not want the $1.3 billion expansion, partly because raising the dam would flood a several miles of the McCloud River, which is protected under state law as wild and scenic.
Western Water Bills
Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) introduced a bill to reauthorize a program that pays water users — mostly farmers and utilities — to leave water in the Colorado River’s main reservoirs.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) sponsored a much broader bill that encompasses speedier project permitting, a report on the Bureau of Reclamation’s maintenance needs, aquifer recharge using water from Reclamation projects, and state water rights.
The bill also authorizes a pilot project to recalibrate the management of Reclamation reservoirs by adjusting the rule curves. These are the seasonal blueprints for releasing and retaining water that can be improved by incorporating computer models, forecasts, and real-time data.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will discuss these bills in a hearing on March 22, which is, coincidently, World Water Day.
Studies and Reports
Climate Report Review
In review, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine called the federal government’s draft national climate assessment a “strong foundation of climate science” that accurately addresses the consequences of climate change for the United States.
The academy’s reviewers, who are respected scientists, noted that the draft could be strengthened by using more concise language and including more examples of solutions being enacted.
Tracking Water Use for Fracking
The U.S. Geological Survey developed a rubric for assessing water use associated with unconventional oil and gas production. The outline divides water use into three categories: direct (for drilling, fracking, and production), indirect (above-ground use at the drill site), and ancillary (growth in water use in nearby towns because of oil workers).
The report notes that any assessment is only as good as the data, and that the data for these categories are not so good.
On the Radar
Senate Western Water Hearing
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing on March 22 to discuss western water issues. Those testifying include state and federal agency representatives, the Phoenix water utility director, farm and wildlife groups, and the chief sustainability officer for the MGM Grand.
Spring Weather Outlook: Warm, with Moderate Flooding
NOAA forecasts above-average temperatures for most of the country, and moderate flood risk for the lower Mississippi River basin and the Wabash River, which divides Illinois and Indiana.
X-Prize for Cheap, Abundant Water
The U.S. Department of Energy has a problem, and it wants the public’s help. The department is looking for water issues that could be solved through a prize competition.
DOE is looking for a way to turn back the clock. U.S. power plants withdraw more water than any other sector, and water availability is not what it used to be. The department wants to structure a prize competition that will produce ideas for “long-term, abundant supplies of low-cost, water.”
Other agencies have adopted similar approaches for cultivating new ideas, with the Bureau of Reclamation among the leaders. Reclamation has launched prize competitions for invasive mussels, dam safety, arsenic monitoring, and protecting levees from burrowing animals.
With this information request, the DOE is looking for questions that would define a prize competition, not the answers. Submissions are due by May 14 to WaterPrizeRFI@ee.doe.gov.
Speaking of Prize Competitions…
The Bureau of Reclamation’s latest challenge seeks ways to monitor leaks in water distribution pipes larger than 48-inches in diameter. Submissions are due May 7. See the link for more details.
The EPA published in the Federal Register its proposed revisions to federal regulations of coal ash disposal. The revision would give more oversight power to the states. Publication in the register initiates the public comment period, which runs through April 30. Submit comments via www.regulations.gov using docket EPA-HQ-OLEM-2017-0286. A public meeting to discuss the proposal will be held on April 24 in Washington, D.C.
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