EPA wants to know which unregulated contaminants utilities should monitor. An FAA reauthorization bill aims to reduce use of PFAS chemicals at commercial airports. Republican senators object to states using water quality permits to block fossil fuel projects. Congress advances water-related bills. And lastly, Congress will weigh a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico that changes how investor disputes are settled.
“We are firmly committed to states’ and tribes’ central role in protecting water resources, as we have maintained in other contexts. In the few instances mentioned above, Section 401 is currently being used inappropriately to ‘fight’ projects rather than protect water quality.” — Letter from five Republican senators to Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The senators, most of whom hail from major fossil fuel producing states, object to states using Clean Water Act authority to deny water quality permits to fossil fuel developments, thereby blocking the projects. Examples include a natural gas pipeline in New York and a coal terminal in Washington state. Earlier this year the senators introduced a bill that would curtail state power in this regard.
By the Numbers
34,050 acre-feet: Annual water supply that a new reservoir in northern Texas is designed to provide cities north of Dallas. Lake Ralph Hall is a project of the Upper Trinity Regional Water District and includes a 32-mile pipeline that will cross 59 streams. (Army Corps of Engineers)
Congress Acts on PFAS in Firefighting Foam
Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which includes a section that allows airports to use foams that do not contain fluorine compounds.
Fluorine compounds, including PFAS chemicals, have fire-retarding properties that are useful for putting out conflagrations. But they are also a threat to the environment and human health. Military performance standards still require the use of fluorine foams, but the FAA bill gives commercial airports the option to use less damaging alternatives.
“While there’s a lot of work to be done related to remediation, human health research, filter technology, and more, we must stop making this problem worse,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) during Senate debate. Peters, who advocated for the provision, noted that airports in other countries already employ fluorine-free foams.
Drinking Water Contaminant Monitoring
The EPA wants to know which unregulated contaminants it should require utilities to monitor in drinking water.
The Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) is the first step in the process for regulating a chemical or microbial contaminant. By testing for unregulated substances, the EPA begins to understand how frequently they occur in drinking water.
This fifth round of CCL sampling will take place in roughly five years. Utilities that serve more than 10,000 people are required to test. For at least five of the contaminants on the list, the agency is required, after the testing is completed, to determine whether to regulate them.
The fourth round of testing, for 97 chemicals and a dozen microbial contaminants, is ongoing and includes 10 cyanotoxins produced by harmful algae. The third round provided data on six PFAS chemicals.
Nominations for CCL 5 are due December 4 and should be submitted via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0594. The Federal Register announcement lists information that should be included with each submission.
Drinking Water Regulations Review
The EPA is also beginning its review of existing drinking water regulations. This review occurs every six years and is designed to determine whether rules need to be changed or strengthened.
Senate Advances Water Bills
Lots of action late in the session, as the Senate advanced a passel of water-related bills:
- The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs endorsed the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, a bill that allocates water to the Navajo Nation from the San Juan River basin, a Colorado River tributary. The tribe will be allowed to deplete 81,500 acre-feet per year from surface and groundwater. (Diversions are often larger than depletions because a portion of the water applied to fields is not used by crops.) The bill also authorizes $198 million to plan, design, and build a water delivery system for the tribe. That amount can be increased to account for inflation.
- The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved the Bureau of Reclamation Pumped Storage Hydropower Development Act, which allows Reclamation reservoirs to be used for pumped storage. This type of hydropower is a form of battery in which water is shifted to an upper reservoir when power prices are low in order to release it to the lower reservoir when demand is high. The House already passed the bill.
- The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources advanced the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act, which permanently authorizes, at $900 million per year, the federal fund for conserving lands for recreation and environmental benefits. Legal authority for the fund expired on September 30.
- The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources also moved forward a bill that authorizes the federal government to pay up to 75 percent of the cost of two rural water systems. The systems are in Montana and North Dakota. The government, however, already has a backlog of rural water system projects that are decades behind schedule.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Climate Risk Disclosure Act, which requires publicly traded companies to file annual climate risk reports. Companies would be required to disclose their contribution to the problem — direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions — and their exposure to its damaging consequences: water shortages, sea level rise, floods, droughts, and more. They would also be required to report the risks to their business of climate action: assets that may lose value because of treaties, litigation, legislation, or new technologies.
Studies and Reports
Conservation Tillage Report
Tilling practices that conserve water and soil vary by region, crop, and year, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
For corn, no-till practices are more common in drier regions such as the northern and southern Great Plains, where water conservation is essential, and in warmer regions like the Deep South, where turning over the soil to warm it is not necessary.
On the Radar
Negotiators unveiled the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as a replacement for NAFTA.
One key provision of the old agreement — investor-state dispute settlement — has been largely abandoned. This allowed companies to challenge before an arbitration panel national and state laws that threatened their investments abroad. The arbitration clause allowed companies to avoid local courts. Environmental laws were often targets.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian think tank, called the change “significant.”
Arbitration will be phased out completely in Canada and will remain in Mexico for select sectors, such as oil and gas.
Congress, and its counterparts in Mexico and Canada, must still approve the trade deal.
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