Federal Water Tap, October 22: Trump Memo Aims To Deliver More Water To California Farms

The Rundown

Most immediate effect of the Trump memo will be to quicken environmental reviews. Operation and maintenance costs for water systems are rising, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Federal agencies publish timetables for regulatory actions. An Ohio lawmaker introduces a bill to require the EPA to set a drinking water standard for microcystin. And lastly, the National Academies hold a Legionella meeting today.

“What’s happened there is disgraceful. They’ve taken it away. There’s so much water, they don’t know what to do with it, and they send it out to sea.” — President Trump talking about water in California at the signing of a presidential memo on October 19, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Trump was repeating an incorrect talking point that water is “wasted” by allowing it to flow out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, through San Francisco Bay, to the Pacific Ocean. Fresh water flowing out of the delta is needed to keep salty water from flowing too far inland, where it could spoil drinking water and irrigation supplies.

By the Numbers

$142 billion: Public spending on water supply, treatment, and associated infrastructure in 2017 by state, local, and federal government. (Congressional Budget Office)

News Briefs

Trump Weighs In On Western Water
In a memo ordering federal agencies to quicken a number of important administrative actions governing water supply in the American West — and particularly in California — President Trump sought to make more water available to the agriculture industry.

“None of this is going to be pro-environment,” Brian Gray, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and professor emeritus at UC Hastings College of the Law, told Circle of Blue. “It’s all directed at water deliveries.”

Gray said there was nothing particularly new in the memo, which Trump signed while flanked by Republican representatives from California. Federal agencies are already rewriting biological opinions for the water delivery infrastructure that moves water from northern California to farms and cities in the south. Biological opinions guide how water managers protect aquatic life when they operate a system that has pumps so massive that they cause rivers to flow backward.

The memo sets relatively quick timelines for completing those opinions: January 31, 2019, for the initial assessment, with a final opinion to follow in 135 days.

The memo orders agencies to identify procedures that “unduly burden” the Central Valley Project, the federal dam-and-canal apparatus in California, and “suspend, revise, or rescind” them.

Maximizing water diverted out of the delta in this way “removes a working margin of safety built into the biological opinions to ensure that federal actions do not place species in jeopardy,” Gray said.

The memo came a week after Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, met with farmers in Stanislaus County during a California trip.

EPA Mulls River Disposal of Oilfield Wastewater
The oil boom in the Permian Basin is producing so much salty wastewater that the EPA is considering whether drillers should be allowed to treat the brine and release it into rivers, the Houston Chronicle reports.

The most common means of disposal is injecting the waste thousands of feet underground into specially designated wells. But industry insiders worry that the number of suitable spots cannot match the volumes of wastewater that are being produced.

Regulatory Calendar
Federal agencies released their regulatory plans, something they are required to do every six months.

The EPA still expects draft revision of the Lead and Copper Rule in February 2019. The draft of the rewritten Waters of the United States Rule, which sets the scope of the Clean Water Act, is listed as October 2018, as is a draft drinking water standard for perchlorate.

A draft rule for changes to wastewater discharge requirements at steam electric power plants is planned for March 2019. The agency is also reviewing use of veto authority under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

In addition to diminishing the government’s reach, the Trump administration wants to tighten its operating structure. Reorganization is the buzzword — shifting agencies between departments or consolidating offices. Congressional Research Service has a long report that evaluates some of the obstacles. For example: it is uncertain whether a proposal to shift the Army Corps of Engineers’ water and environmental responsibilities from the Defense Department to the Interior Department requires Congressional approval.

Drinking Water Toxin Bill
It’s very late in the game for this Congress, which is essentially on break until after the election and then wraps up work by the end of the year. But representatives keep introducing bills, in some ways to signal their interests.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) filed legislation to require the EPA to set a drinking water standard for microcystin, a toxin produced by cyanobacteria. It was microcystin that cause the panic in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014.

Kaptur introduced the same bill in 2016, but it was not heard in committee.

The EPA has a health advisory for microcystin, but not an enforceable standard that utilities are required to meet.

In context: Regulators Will Soon Know A Lot More About Algal Toxins in U.S. Drinking Water

Studies and Reports

CBO Updates Government Water Spending Data
Operation and maintenance costs for water systems are steadily rising, according to updated figures from the Congressional Budget Office.

The report looks at federal and local spending on transportation and water from 1956 to 2017.

Public spending on water supply and treatment, as a percent of GDP, has remained relatively constant for the last four decades. But capital spending is declining as the cost of maintaining older assets has gone up, the report shows.

Local and state governments are responsible for about 96 percent of public spending on water supply and treatment, according to the CBO.

See pages 20-23 for the relevant charts.

Financing Water Infrastructure
The CBO published a companion report that outlines the cost to the federal government of various water infrastructure financing programs.

Municipal bonds, because the interest earned is tax-exempt, costs the federal government 26 cents on the dollar in foregone tax revenue, based on a 20-year loan. Municipal bonds are the most common financing structure, by the amount of financing annually.

On the Radar

Legionella Meeting
On October 22, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine holds its fourth meeting on managing Legionella risk in water systems. Legionella are the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia-like illness.

Speakers include representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs and a consultant who works on building codes.

Registration for the online meeting is free.

In context: Deadly Legionnaires’ Disease Outbreaks Persist In The U.S.

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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