Federal Water Tap, November 12: CDC Report Details Legionnaires’ Disease Data

The Rundown

The CDC publishes Legionnaires’ data from 2014 and 2015. The EPA releases the first batch of test results from latest cycle of monitoring unregulated contaminants in drinking water. The EPA and New Mexico agencies look at ways to reuse oilfield wastewater. Watchdog agency recommends better dam safety oversight at FERC. A Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing in Michigan to discuss the federal and state response to PFAS chemicals. California’s Republican representatives ask the Bureau of Reclamation to prioritize funding for dams and canals in the state. And lastly, the lame-duck Congress still has work to do on the farm bill and budget.

By the Numbers

80: Percent chance that El Nino conditions develop this winter. The climate pattern, marked by warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator, generally means warmer-than-average temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and cool, wet conditions in the Southeast. The strength of those effects depends on the intensity of warming. The forecast is for a weak or moderate El Nino. (NOAA)

116,000 acre-feet: Amount of oilfield wastewater, or “produced water,” generated in New Mexico in 2017. That is enough water to supply 464,000 average New Mexican households for a year, or just over 1.2 million people. Those averages are based on U.S. Geological Survey figures for household water use and Census Bureau figures for household size. (EPA)

6,079: Confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the United States in 2015. (CDC)

News Briefs

Legionnaires’ Disease Report
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a detailed report on Legionnaires’ disease cases in 2014 and 2015: data on the states where it is most common, who is most susceptible, where they contracted the disease, and what the fatality rate is.

Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia-like illness caused by breathing contaminated water droplets, is the deadliest waterborne disease in the United States and the rate of cases has increased 4.5 times since 2000.

About 9 percent of cases are fatal.

The disease is most common is people over age 50 and is most frequently contracted during the summer and early fall. Most reported cases came from the Great Lakes states and the mid-Atlantic region (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York).

“The geographic differences are of interest,” Laura Cooley, the head of the CDC’s Legionella team, told Circle of Blue. “There’s more to learn about why there are differences. Do diagnoses differ, or are there differences in the environment?”

EPA Awaits Court Decision on Perchlorate
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still waiting to hear whether a federal district court has granted the agency’s request for a six-month extension to set limits on perchlorate in drinking water, an EPA spokesperson told Circle of Blue.

The agency is under a court-ordered October 31, 2018, deadline to regulate perchlorate, a chemical component in explosives and some fertilizers. It is naturally occurring and manmade.

California Water Storage Request
A dozen California Republicans wrote a letter to the leader of the Bureau of Reclamation asking that dam and canal projects in their state be prioritized for funding in fiscal year 2019.

Projects mentioned include expanding the storage capacity of Los Vaqueros and Shasta reservoirs, fixing a Friant-Kern canal that has been damaged by sinking land (which, in turn, was caused by farmers pumping groundwater during dry periods), and building the Sites and Temperance Flat dams.

Most of these projects are in initial assessment phases and still need significant funding if they are to be completed.

Studies and Reports

Testing Drinking Water for Unregulated Contaminants
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the first batch of results from its latest round of testing drinking water for unregulated contaminants.

The agency requires all utilities that serve more than 10,000 people to test for 30 contaminants. (A select number of smaller utilities also participate.) Contaminants in this two-year testing cycle include manganese, a metal, and microcystin, which is the toxin produced by cyanobacteria, a.k.a. harmful algal blooms.

Between 600 and 800 systems have reported results so far. The only unregulated contaminant that was found above health guidelines in more than one percent of systems was manganese, in eight of 776 systems.

Results will be updated and added quarterly. The data are used to inform development of national drinking water regulations.

Oilfield Wastewater in New Mexico
New Mexico agencies and the EPA published a draft analysis of how the state can alleviate some of its water stress by reusing the large volumes of wastewater being produced in the oil fields of the Permian basin.

One of the country’s driest states, New Mexico now ranks third in oil production thanks to fracking in the booming Permian shales. Oil production generates massive amounts of what the industry calls “produced water,” or what comes out of the well. Produced water is the soup of chemicals and water that are injected underground to fracture or stimulate the well, combined with water and chemicals that are already present underground.

In 2017, New Mexico generated 37.8 billion gallons (116,000 acre-feet) of produced water.

The report describes state and federal regulations that apply to reusing produced water for oilfield operations, agriculture, municipal use, and industrial use.

The report acknowledges that future droughts are expected to be more severe, but it mentions neither climate change nor the expectation that the region will likely become increasingly drier as temperatures rise. The problem for water availability is not just drought — it is growing aridity.

In context: America’s Oil Boom Can Not Happen without Groundwater

FERC Dam Safety Review
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could improve its analysis of safety risks at 2,500 commission-regulated dams, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

In reviewing 42 dam inspections, the GAO concluded that federal regulators take a narrow view, considering safety measures at a particular dam. What would be better, the report argues, is using accumulated data from all dam inspections to identify common problems within the entire FERC portfolio. Doing so requires a change in FERC’s databases and recordkeeping.

FERC agreed with the recommendations.

The report was requested by Congress after the main spillway at Oroville Dam, California’s tallest, broke in February 2017. Regulated by FERC, the dam was undergoing relicensing evaluation at the time.

Improving Army Corps Construction
The Army Corps of Engineers needs to define what it means by “deferred maintenance” for river navigation projects and it needs to spend funds more efficiently so that construction does not drag for decades, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The inefficiency is due in part to how projects are funded — incrementally, through the annual budget process. The report examined alternate ways of funding projects, such as concentrating on one project at a time, which reduced waste in a hypothetical scenario.

Army Corps leadership agreed with the recommendations.

On the Radar

Senate PFAS Hearing
On November 13, a Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to hear from local, state, and federal officials about their response to the state’s PFAS problem.

A specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality who wrote a report six years ago that warned of the state’s exposure to PFAS, will testify. The department has barred Bob Delaney from speaking with the media.

The hearing is being convened by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), who organized a similar event in Congress in September.

In context: In Senate PFAS Hearing, Government Officials Say Regulatory Response Will Take Years

EPA Enforcement Trends
The EPA’s internal watchdog will begin an investigation into the agency’s enforcement actions.

The inquiry will look at the years 2006 through 2018 to identify differences in how regional offices enforce violations of various environmental statutes. Are Clean Water Act penalties decreasing or increasing? Are certain regional offices taking less action?

Lame-Duck Congress Agenda
When they return to Congress after their election campaigns, representatives will have some substantial work to consider before the end of the session.

One item is the farm bill, which was not reauthorized before the September 30 deadline. Both chambers passed bills, but they have proven irreconcilable, so far. The House bill is viewed as more partisan.

Another consideration is the 2019 spending bill for the Department of the Interior and the EPA. The House version contains riders aimed at California water policy that the Senate version does not. The riders would hamper legal challenges to a planned water supply tunnel through the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta and complicate a state plan to change flow requirements for the San Joaquin River.

Members are in conference to sort out differences in the bills.

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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