Federal Water Tap, March 5: Fisheries Service Considers Endangered Species Listing for California Salmon Group

The Rundown

Fisheries regulators consider endangered species status for Chinook salmon in the Klamath and Trinity rivers, while the U.S. Geological Survey analyzes a Sacramento River diversion’s effect on salmon. The EPA proposes changes to coal ash regulations. The GAO looks at federal contracts for hurricane response. The Interior Department proposes regional offices based loosely on watersheds. St. Louis might get a five-year extension for a multibillion-dollar plan to fix its combined sewer system. The U.S. Supreme Court orders Wyoming to pay Montana over a river basin dispute. A Senate bill would establish a fund for rural drinking water projects, while a House bill envisions a water reuse grant program. And lastly, congressional hearings this week on infrastructure, national security, and the Army Corps.

“The permitting process takes too long, is redundant, increases costs, and creates uncertainty. We can’t apply a second-rate process if we want to build the world’s best infrastructure.” — D.J. Gribbin, the White House infrastructure adviser, speaking to state transportation officials about wanting to revamp federal permitting.

By the Numbers

13: Number of regional offices, largely based on watersheds, proposed for an Interior Department administrative realignment. The department says that the change is designed to bring its functions in line with geographic boundaries. The reorganization is expected to begin in the second half of 2018 and take several years to complete. (Interior Department)

5 years: Proposed extension for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District to reduce overflows from its combined sewer system, which also carries stormwater. The deadline to complete three holding basins and a treatment unit — a multibillion-dollar investment to achieve Clean Water Act goals — will be extended to June 2039. (Department of Justice)

$20,340: Penalty that Wyoming must pay Montana for taking too much water from the Tongue River, in violation of an interstate river compact. (U.S. Supreme Court)

$5.6 billion: Contracts for hurricane recovery awarded by FEMA through December 31, 2017. This is the first in a series of reports that will assess federal contracts for responding to last year’s big three hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. (Government Accountability Office)

News Briefs

Evidence that California Salmon Group Is Threatened
Salmon that spawn in the Klamath and Trinity rivers of northern California may require protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a preliminary finding from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The NMFS was responding to a petition from the Karuk tribe and the Salmon River Restoration Council to list spring-run Chinook salmon from those watersheds as endangered or threatened. The 90-day finding, which agreed that the petitioners presented “substantial” evidence for their case, is the first step in the listing process.

The NMFS now begins a 60-day public comment period in which the agency will solicit more scientific evidence on threats to the fish and which river reaches are critical habitat. Submit comments by April 30.

EPA Looks to Cut Cost of Coal Ash Rules
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed two proposals to reduce the cost to utilities of disposing of coal ash.

The revisions make a number of changes: adding boron to the list of regulated contaminants, requiring maintenance of impoundment slopes, and requiring a less intensive response to “small” incidents at the impoundment, i.e. those expected to have a limited effect on human health.

Examples the agency gives of the latter are: seepage through the dam or along the abutment. These may constitute structural problems, but the EPA does not want them in the same response category as large spills into rivers or groundwater.

Dollars for Water Reuse
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) wants to shower money on water recycling. Her bill would authorize $500 million in grants for such projects.

The bill also includes $375 million in grants for projects that use wastewater or stormwater to meet water demand in an area in which rivers or aquifers are insufficient for the task. The federal government would provide up to half of a qualifying project’s cost.

Rural Water Projects Bill
Sen. John Tester (D-MT) introduced a bill to speed up construction of rural drinking water projects. The bill establishes two funds within the Bureau of Reclamation. The rural water projects fund would receive $80 million per year for the next two decades to pay for construction costs — but not the operation or maintenance of existing systems. A settlement account would receive $35 million a year for two decades to pay for projects included in Indian water rights claims.

The money is designated for projects already authorized by Congress. More might be coming. Last week, Tester’s Montana colleague in the House proposed two more projects.

Studies and Reports

Delta Tunnels’ Effect on Salmon
A water diversion proposed by the state of California on the Sacramento River would draw some young Chinook salmon into the interior of the delta, where they are more likely to die, according to a U.S. Geological Survey analysis.

But the number of salmon that lose their way varies with the force of the pumps. At low pumping levels, the analysis found the least effect.

The study assumed a constant rate of pumping each day, not one that varies hourly with tidal and flow conditions. The state could require such fine-tuned operations, but because no plan has been written the USGS could not evaluate it.

Hawaii Groundwater
The U.S. Geological Survey published a report on the groundwater hydrology of the four most populated Hawaiian Islands. The report notes that groundwater is “particularly vulnerable” in Hawaii because of limited storage capacity, porous rock, and potential for saltwater intrusion.

On the Radar

Infrastructure Hearing
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discusses the Trump administration’s public works plan on March 6. Roads and bridges seem to get top billing at this event as the only witness will be Elaine Chao, secretary of the Department of Transportation.

Global Threats Hearing
The leaders of two intelligence agencies will testify at the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 6 about national security threats. The annual national security report from the Director of National Intelligence again mentioned water scarcity and climate change as substantial risks. Will any senators ask about them?

Army Corps Hearing
Big day on March 6. The House Oversight Committee will scrutinize the Army Corps of Engineers. A witness list is not yet available.

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.