Federal Water Tap, February 4: Colorado River Water Plan Moves Closer to Finish Line

The Rundown

Colorado River basin states are close to finalizing drought plans, but the Bureau of Reclamation starts the process for federal involvement in determining water cuts. The EPA might not regulate two PFAS chemicals in drinking water, Politico reports. A Michigan senator rebukes the Air Force for its response to PFAS contamination from a former base near Oscoda. The GAO criticizes the Department of Energy’s lack of a nationwide cleanup strategy for contaminated nuclear weapons production sites. House committees will hold climate change hearings, while a Senate committee will vote to advance the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to run the EPA. And lastly, a Michigan resident affected by PFAS chemicals will attend the State of the Union this week.

“Neither California nor Arizona have completed all of the necessary work. Close isn’t done.” — Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, speaking with reporters about plans to cut Colorado River water use. Burman gave the seven basin states a January 31 deadline to finalize their plans. Though Arizona lawmakers approved a plan, not all users in the state have had a chance to sign off on it. The Imperial Irrigation District in California is also waiting on assurances that there will be funds to take care of dust at the Salton Sea. Because of those gaps, Burman said that Reclamation will gather input starting in March for its own plan to determine water cuts. That plan would be used “in the event that the [state drought plans] cannot be completed and promptly adopted.” In other words, Arizona and California agencies still have time to sign their agreements.

By the Numbers

$377 billion: Estimated cost to clean up contamination at 16 nuclear weapons production facilities. A government watchdog says the department needs a more coordinated strategy for dealing with radioactive waste and toxic groundwater and soils. (Government Accountability Office)

80,000 gallons: Crude oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2016 from a cracked pipe. Shell, the operator, agreed to pay a $2.2 million civil penalty, on top of a $3.9 million payment for ecosystem damages and response costs. (Justice Department)

News Briefs

EPA’s Pending PFAS Decision
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will not regulate two PFAS chemicals in drinking water, Politico reports, citing two anonymous sources with knowledge of the agency’s plans.

The EPA is preparing to release a plan for managing PFAS chemicals, which have been found in the drinking water of millions of Americans. Part of that plan will be a recommendation whether to regulate PFOA and PFOS, the two most-studied of the thousands of PFAS chemicals.

The plan, however, will recommend that the chemicals be listed as hazardous substances under CERCLA, the federal environmental cleanup law, Politico reports.

David Ross, the head of the EPA’s Office of Water, disputed the report, saying in a statement that a final decision has not been made whether to regulate PFOA and PFOS.

PFAS Dispute in Michigan
Following reports that the Air Force, claiming sovereign immunity, will not comply with state water quality standards, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) chided the secretary of the Air Force for “not working in good faith” with the state to control PFAS pollution of groundwater, lakes, and rivers.

The contamination in question comes from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, in Oscoda.

The Air Force wrote in a December letter to Michigan officials that it does not have to comply with a state rule that limits PFAS concentrations to 12 parts per trillion where groundwater discharges into surface water, MLive reports.

Peters called the Air Force’s position “aggressive and defensive.”

In context: Fear and Fury in Michigan Town Where Air Force Contaminated Water

In context: Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency

EPA Drinking Water Advisers
Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the EPA, announced three new members of the drinking water committee of the agency’s Science Advisory Board.

The new members are: Craig Adams of Saint Louis University who studies cyanotoxins and water treatment; Mark LeChevallier, a consultant who focuses on pathogens and water treatment; and Mark Wiesner of Duke University, a specialist in membrane treatment.

The Science Advisory Board’s drinking water committee consults with the EPA on technical matters related to drinking water policy.

Studies and Reports

Strategy Needed for Nuclear Waste Cleanup
The Department of Energy says that cleaning up contaminated groundwater, soil, and buildings while also disposing of spent fuel and treating radioactive waste at 16 nuclear weapons production facilities will cost roughly $377 billion. But no one knows for sure. That figure increased by $109 billion in the last year because of updated figures for Hanford, a former plutonium plant in Washington state.

A government watchdog says that the Department of Energy needs to develop a nationwide strategy that balances environmental risks with the costs and benefits of cleanups across its portfolio of contaminated sites. Currently, cleanup methods are determine site-by-site, which has resulted in more costly options selected for similar facilities.

“Without developing a program-wide cleanup strategy that sets national priorities and describes how DOE will direct available resources to address the greatest human health and environmental risks across and within sites, [the Office of Environmental Management] cannot be assured that it is effectively setting priorities within and across sites,” the Government Accountability Office report states.

On the Radar

State of the Union
On February 5, President Trump will give the annual address to Congress, which was delayed because of the government shutdown.

In attendance will be a Michigan resident whose town is affected by PFAS contamination of groundwater, rivers, and lakes.

Cathy Wusterbarth of Oscoda is scheduled to attend the speech as the guest of Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who represents the area in Congress. Wusterbarth helped to organize Need Our Water, a local pressure group that wants to rid the area’s waters of PFAS chemicals flowing from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

Senate Committee Votes on Wheeler Nomination
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will vote on February 5 on whether Andrew Wheeler should lead the EPA. If the committee approves, the nomination will be considered by the full Senate.

House Climate Hearings
There are a pair of hearings on February 6.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on the environmental and economic consequences of climate change. A witness list was not yet available.

The House Natural Resources Committee, meanwhile, will hear from the governors of Massachusetts and North Carolina about the human impacts of climate change. A second panel includes social justice advocates, a climate scientist, and an advisor to CDP, the corporate environmental disclosure group.

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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