Federal Water Tap, April 1: Justice Department Sues California Over River Plan

The Rundown

Trump administration lawsuit opposes California’s plan to add water to rivers for fish and environment. Colorado River officials barnstorm Congress to lobby for action on the basin’s water conservation plan. The GAO reports that state agencies do not have the capacity to administer tens of billions in disaster aid that Congress allocated in response to 2017 hurricanes. A bipartisan bill would provide funds for PFAS detection technology and monitoring of the chemicals in the environment. President Trump states his support for full funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The EPA publishes requirements for drinking water utility risk assessments and emergency plans. The EPA administrator recuses himself from decisions involving an Alaska mine and names water as the world’s biggest environmental risk. The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on April 2 on western water systems. And lastly, the EPA announces that roughly $6 billion will be available for the next round of water infrastructure loans.

“The risk on the system is too great not to act.” — Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, testifying at a Senate hearing on water conservation plans in the Colorado River basin. Though runoff in the basin this year is expected to be average, Burman cautioned that a bit more snow than in recent years is no reason for delaying action. She noted that the basin’s reservoirs, which were full going into the year 2000, were drained of half their water in the next 48 months. A return of conditions as dry as those years would be devastating.

By the Numbers

$6 billion: Funding available for the next round of water infrastructure loans. Utilities will have 90 days to submit a letter of interest once the notice is published in the Federal Register. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

$4.1 million: Federal government aid to Mozambique after Cyclone Idai. A disaster response team that helps with logistics was also dispatched, on March 24. (U.S. Agency for International Development)

$5.2 million: Research funding for three projects to clean up polluted water by using less energy. Columbia University will look to remove nitrogen, while Oregon State University and Oklahoma University are focusing on salty wastewater from oil and gas production. (ARPA-E)

In context: Permian Oil Boom Uncorks Multibillion-Dollar Water Play

News Briefs

California Lawsuit
The Trump administration filed a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate a California agency’s decision to leave more water in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries in order to protect fish. It’s the latest clash between the administration and the state over environmental policy.

The lawsuit claims that the river flow requirements, which the State Water Resources Control Board adopted in December, violate state environmental review laws and would impair the operation of New Melones Dam, a federal structure that supplies water to farms and cities in the southern half of the state.

Colorado River Hearings
Officials from the Colorado River basin told committees in the House and Senate that Congress should rapidly sign legislation to allow the seven states to implement plans to keep more water in key reservoirs.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) said she plans to introduce a bill “as soon as possible” that will authorize the agreements, which cover water-saving practices in the basin through 2026. “We want to get this legislation across the finish line and signed into law,” she said.

Interior Confirmation Hearing
Despite questions from Democrats about his ethics and potential conflicts of interest, David Bernhardt appears to be on his way to confirmation as the Interior secretary.

“My intent is to move quickly to confirm you,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) during her opening statement.

Bernhardt has served as the department’s deputy under President Trump, as well as its top lawyer during the second Bush administration. Between those appointments, he worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for oil and gas companies, mining companies, and irrigation districts – industries and agencies that he would oversee as head of Interior. Thus the ethics concerns.

Wheeler’s Water Remarks
Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, said in a speech at the Wilson Center that the United States can aid global water security in three ways.

“It is our hope that we can elevate these issues to global priority and generate the urgency and unity needed to address them,” Wheeler said.

One is drinking water research, education, and testing. Wheeler touted a water quality testing lab in Ghana that is the result of a partnership between EPA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The second is reducing marine pollution, notably from plastics and solid waste. And third is infrastructure investment.

PFAS Detection Act
Congressional representatives introduced a bipartisan bill to fund PFAS testing technology and an assessment of the occurrence of the chemicals in the environment.

The PFAS Detection Act provides $45 million over five years to develop analytical technologies and methods, then to sample rivers, groundwater, springs, and lakes that are used as drinking water sources and are located near facilities that might have released PFAS compounds.

Pebble Mine Recusal
Andrew Wheeler said he will not be involved in permitting or review decisions regarding the proposed Pebble mine, a controversial gold and copper deposit in Alaska, Bloomberg reported.

Wheeler’s former law firm had contact with the mine developer, though Wheeler himself has not.

Trump States Support for Great Lakes Restoration
His fiscal year 2020 budget proposal recommended cutting funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by 90 percent. But at a rally in Michigan last week, President Trump said he now supports full funding of the initiative at its authorized level of $300 million, the Detroit News reports.

“I support the Great Lakes,” Trump said, according to news reports. “They’re beautiful. They’re big, very deep. Record deepness, right?”

The deepest lake in North America is Great Slave Lake, in Canada, with a maximum depth of 2,015 feet. The deepest lake in the United States is Crater Lake, in Oregon, at 1,949 feet. Lake Superior, the deepest of the Great Lakes, has a maximum depth of 1,333 feet.

Studies and Reports

HUD Slow to Deliver Disaster Aid
Congress directed a huge amount of money — nearly $33 billion to the four hardest-hit areas — to individuals affected by hurricanes in 2017. But only a tiny fraction, in the tens of millions, has been spent so far, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The lag between allocation and spending is due to state agencies still setting up the programs that will funnel money to individuals. The states still need to hire staff who will facilitate the aid programs. The GAO reports that 48 percent of staff positions to administer the funds were vacant at the end of 2018.

Money was allocated to Puerto Rico ($19.9 billion), Texas ($9.8 billion), U.S. Virgin Islands ($1.9 billion), and Florida ($1.3 billion). But little money has been spent. As of January, Texas had drawn only $18 million and Florida, $1 million. Neither Puerto Rico nor the U.S. Virgin Islands had drawn from their accounts.

Water System Risk and Emergency Planning
The EPA published requirements and timelines for drinking water utilities to complete risk evaluations and emergency plans. Congress ordered the two documents in an infrastructure bill that was signed last October.

Utilities must evaluate risks from natural hazards, sabotage, chemical spills, and financial constraints. The risk assessment informs the emergency plans, which detail how the utility will respond to identified threats.

The rules apply to utilities serving more than 3,300 customers.

On the Radar

Western Water Infrastructure Hearing
On April 2, the House Natural Resources Committee discusses the state of dams, canals, and drinking water pipes in the American West.

EPA Environmental Finance Advisory Board Meeting
The board, which advises the agency on how to fund environmental improvements and projects, will hold a public meeting on April 17 and 18 in Washington, D.C.

On the agenda is stormwater financing.

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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