Federal Water Tap, December 16: Tribal Water Bills Introduced in Congress

The Rundown

Senators champion bills on tribal water quality and a water rights settlement in Montana, while the House passes a bill to improve climate change planning on the coasts. The Army Corps estimates it will cost an additional $3.2 billion to raise levees and floodwalls in New Orleans because of subsidence and sea-level rise. The BLM approves a California land management plan that includes fracking. A Defense Department spending authorization bill offers $5.3 billion to repair storm-damaged military bases. And lastly, a chemical company agrees to pay a $245 million penalty for polluting the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

“Our analysis shows the federal government does not strategically identify and prioritize projects to ensure they address the nation’s most significant climate risks.” — Mark Gaffigan, managing director of the Government Accountability Office’s natural resources and environment section, testifying before the House climate committee. The GAO has made 17 recommendations to the federal government since 2003 for improving climate change planning. As of August, no action had been taken on 14 of those recommendations.

By the Numbers

$5.3 billion: Funding authorized in a Defense Department spending bill to repair military bases that were damaged in recent years by hurricanes, floods, and other natural hazards. Offutt Air Force Base, in Nebraska, was damaged this spring by a swollen Missouri River. Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida, was pummeled by Hurricane Michael, in 2018. And Camp Lejeune was rocked by Hurricane Florence, also in 2018. (Congress)

$245 million: Fine to be paid by a chemical company for polluting the Kalamazoo River in Michigan with PCBs more than two decades ago. The money will be put towards cleanup efforts. (AP)

News Briefs

Tribal Water Bills
Senators introduced two tribal water bills last week.

Montana’s delegation proposed legislation to approve a $1.9 billion water rights settlement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Already approved by state lawmakers, the settlement allocates 90,000 acre-feet of water per year to the Tribes. The bill allows the Tribes to lease water for use both on and off the reservation, and it establishes a trust fund for the settlement money.

The bill outlines more than a dozen ways in which the funds can be used, from irrigation repairs and geothermal development to construction of water and wastewater treatment facilities.

Oregon’s delegation, meanwhile, aims to improve tribal drinking water quality in its own region. It would do that by expanding the coverage of an existing federal program.

The Tribal Water Infrastructure Act would increase authorized funding for the Indian Reservation Drinking Water Program, from $20 million per year to $30 million per year. Established in 2018, the program provides funds to tribes in the upper Rio Grande and upper Missouri river basins. The bill would expand the program to tribes in the Columbia River basin and nearby coastal watersheds.

“We need to invest in replacing outdated pipe systems, to help ensure that tribal nations have reliable access to safe drinking water for years to come,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), a bill sponsor, in a statement.

Other Water Bills

  • The House passed a coastal management bill that would establish a grant program for state to develop plans to address coastal impacts of climate change.
  • A Senate committee advanced a bill that would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to update federal maps that show the sensitivity of coastal ecosystems to oil spills. The sensitivity maps, which help identify protected areas and cleanup priorities before an incident, include the Great Lakes.

Studies and Reports

Rebuilding New Orleans’ Levees…Again
It will cost $3.2 billion to raise more than 100 miles of levees and floodwalls around New Orleans to fortify the low-lying city against sinking land and rising seas.

That is what the Army Corps of Engineers is proposing as part of a 50-year plan to provide adequate flood protection to the city.

The levee system was rebuilt, after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, at a cost of $14 billion. Some of those levees, because of compacting soils and higher seas, will soon not provide the flood protection for which they were designed. How soon? By 2023 in some areas.

The levee-raising plan comes in two parts, one for Lake Pontchartrain (more extensive and spendier, at $2.6 billion) and another for the West Bank of the Mississippi River (estimated at $613 million for 52 miles of levee lifts and 0.9 miles of floodwalls).

BLM Approves California Land Plan
The Bureau of Land Management signed a record of decision that finalizes a land management plan for central California that permits fracking.

A supplemental assessment was ordered by a U.S. district court, which said that the BLM needed to do more analysis on the environmental effects of fracking before updating the region’s resource management plan. The plan, published in 2014, covers five counties in the southern Central Valley and three counties — San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura — on the coast. It was challenged by Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch.

In its supplemental review, the BLM determined that amending the plan is “not warranted.” The limited amount of hydraulic fracturing expected to occur in the region “did not show a notable increase in total impacts,” according to the BLM, which said that effects on surface water, groundwater use, and groundwater quality from disposal of fracking waste are “negligible.” Up to 40 fracked wells over 10 years are expected, according to the review.

Fracking is an infrequently employed oil extraction technique in California. Annual water use for fracking in the state amounts to several hundred acre-feet, according to state officials.

Nitrate in the Mississippi River Basin
Upstream projects in the Mississippi River watershed to reduce the amount of harmful nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico have not resulted in significant changes at the mouth of the river, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study.

The study looked at the period between 2002 and 2012.

On the Radar

Climate Hearing
On December 19, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform will discuss the current economic costs of not responding to the climate crisis.

PFAS Determination
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that it will announce by the end of the year whether it will regulate at least two PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The agency has sent its proposal to the White House for review.

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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