Federal Water Tap, May 14: Colorado River Forecast Shows Greater Risk of Shortage

The Rundown

Drying of the American Southwest continues, while Great Lakes water levels are above normal. Senators introduce a bipartisan water infrastructure bill. The EPA cancels a proposed groundwater pollution rule and decides not to revise water quality standards for swimming. Federal health researchers outline the first phase of a perfluorinated chemicals health study on military bases, while Michigan senators want answers from the Defense Department about those same chemicals. The U.S. Forest Service’s review of a proposed mining ban on more than 234,000 acres in Minnesota is expected by the end of the year. NOAA researchers roll out a new drought monitoring tool. And lastly, the first Lake Erie harmful algal bloom forecast of the summer presents a range of outcomes.

“We need action and we need it now. We can’t afford to wait for a crisis before we implement drought contingency plans. We all — states, tribes, water districts, non-governmental organizations — have an obligation and responsibility to work together to meet the needs of over 40 million people who depend on reliable water and power from the Colorado River. I’m calling on the Colorado River basin states to put real — and effective — drought contingency plans in place before the end of this year.” — Brenda Burman, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, in a statement that urged states to agree on how to use less water.

By the Numbers

52 percent: Chance that the water elevation in Lake Mead drops below 1075 feet in 2020. That is the level at which a first-ever shortage declaration would require automatic cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. States in the lower basin of the Colorado River have been voluntarily conserving in recent years in order to avoid mandatory cutbacks. The odds of shortage are above 64 percent in the years 2021 through 2023. (Bureau of Reclamation)

News Briefs

EPA Cancels Groundwater and Pesticide Rule
True to the Trump administration’s goal of cutting regulations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will not finalize a rule to restrict the sale and use of five pesticides that are linked to cancer. The most well-known of the five is atrazine, the use of which has declined slightly in the last decade.

The agency says it is withdrawing the rule because upon further investigation, in 2006, it determined that use of the chemicals would have “no unreasonable adverse effect on the environment.” Atrazine is found frequently in shallow wells in the farm regions of the Great Plains and Midwest.

The rule had been in limbo for a while. It was first proposed in 1999 and it was delayed during the Bush administration for further assessment.

Michigan Senators Question Defense Department’s Chemical Cleanup Stance
Michigan’s senators asked the secretary of defense in a letter to abide by the state’s pollution standards when cleaning up perfluorinated chemicals that have tainted waters around more than a half dozen military sites in the state.

Michigan officials and the Air Force have been feuding for more than six months over the state’s water quality standards, which are more stringent than federal rules. The senators object to the Defense Department not complying with state law.

“We would have great concern if the Department or any of the individual branches were considering this action,” wrote Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats.

In context: Fear and Fury in Michigan Town Where Air Force Contaminated Water

America’s Water Bill
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a wide-ranging bill on water infrastructure funding, permitting, and technical support.

The primary purpose of the legislation is to reauthorize Army Corps of Engineers projects, something that is supposed to happen every two years. But the 202-page bill contains much more: speeding reservoir permitting for communities whose water is contaminated by Defense Department activities, reauthorizing the WIFIA lending program, Great Lakes restoration funding, and other provisions.

Laughable Proposal to Nix Ballast Water Reporting Requirement
The Coast Guard wants to eliminate an annual ballast water management report for ships that travel short distances, arguing that this report, set to expire next year, is an “unnecessary burden” that does not aid understanding of how ships manage the water they use to balance their loads.

The reporting requirement is small potatoes, applying to only 166 ships. And apparently the paperwork is a breeze. The Coast Guard estimates that the total time saved by eliminating the rule is 21 minutes and 15 seconds per vessel. The assessment of burden, therefore, is laughable. Total cost savings per vessel: $20.85.

The reporting requirement was established in 2015 and expires after this year. The Coast Guard proposal would eliminate the final year of reporting. The reports include on the vessel, the number of ballast tanks, total ballast water capacity, and a record of ballast water loading and discharges.

The proposed rule change was developed in response to President Trump’s 2017 order to trim federal regulations.

Studies and Reports

Perfluorinated Chemicals Health Study
A federal health agency will test its research methods at a New Hampshire Air Force base for an upcoming national study of human exposure to perfluorinated chemicals, which were used by the military in fire-suppressing foams.

The “test drive” at Pease Air Force Base will allow the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to “test and validate the approach, collection methods, questionnaires, tools, procedures, and analyses and refine accordingly,” the agency told Circle of Blue.

Congress included $10 million in the 2018 spending bill for an exposure assessment followed by a health study. The other military bases in the study have not yet been selected, ATSDR said. At least eight will be chosen.

In context: Perfluorinated Chemicals Health Study Included in Congress Budget Deal

Recreational Water Quality
The EPA decided not to revise standards set in 2012 for water quality at beaches and other swimming spots. The standards guide the posting of swimming advisories and influence permitting under the Clean Water Act.

The report to Congress lists areas needed for further research on monitoring and assessing disease risks from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens present at beaches.

In the report, the EPA noted that it will publish new recreational water quality guidelines by the end of 2018 for two cyanotoxins, which are produced by a bacteria commonly known as blue-green algae.

Lake Erie Algae Outlook
The first forecast of the summer for Lake Erie algae shows a wide range of possibilities, but the outcomes skew toward a moderate to severe bloom. Variables that influence the bloom: spring rainfall, farm fertilizer use, temperature, and wind.

Great Lakes Water Level Forecast
Water levels at four of the Great Lakes are expected to be above their 100-year averages in 2018, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts.

Though Lake Ontario recently set a water level record – the lake in February reached its highest mark for that month ever – the lake is expected to fall to average by late summer.

On the Radar

Drought Indicator Measures ‘Thirst’ of the Air
NOAA researchers have rolled out a new drought monitoring tool, one that tests the moisture-sapping potential of the air and operates as an early warning system for dry conditions.

Called the Evaporative Demand Drought Index, the output is updated daily, with a five-day lag for data processing. Maps can be produced showing the air’s thirst from one week to 12 months.

Currently, EDDI shows severe evaporative demand in the Four Corners states and saturation in the northern Plains and Northeast.

Withdrawing National Forest Land in Minnesota from Mining
The U.S. Forest Service announced that instead of an extensive environmental impact statement, it will do a less rigorous environment assessment of a proposal to ban mining on more than 234,000 acres of public land in northern Minnesota. The decision was because few impacts are expected if the land is not chewed up.

Bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Forest Service-managed land was proposed for withdrawal in the last days of the Obama administration. After completion of the environmental assessment, expected by the end of 2018, the Interior secretary will decide whether to go through with the proposal.

EPA Budget Hearing
On May 16, the Senate Appropriations Committee discusses the EPA’s fiscal year 2019 budget.

Water Infrastructure Bill Hearing
On May 17, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works discusses America’s Water Infrastructure Act, mentioned above, that authorizes water projects for the Army Corps of Engineers.

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.

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