Federal Water Tap, January 14: Shutdown, Plus Wheeler Nominated as EPA Leader

The Rundown

The longest government shutdown in the nation’s history drags on. President Trump nominates Andrew Wheeler to helm the EPA. A House bill seeks to prioritize water research at the Department of Energy, while a big land and water package is introduced in the Senate. And lastly, federal agencies answer President Trump’s order to quicken the environmental review of Columbia River dam operations.

By the Numbers

13.7 gigawatts: Generating capacity of coal-fired power plants that were retired in 2018, the second-highest amount of coal capacity retired in a year. (Energy Information Administration)

News Briefs

Shutdown Continues
Congress and the White House still have not come to terms with a budget that would reopen government agencies that have been closed for more than three weeks, a record.

Agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are operating with skeleton crews of several hundred employees — employees needed to protect life and property, such as those operating mine waste treatment works.

The shutdown has caused the postponement of public meetings to discuss contaminated site cleanups and delays in Superfund work.

Wheeler Nominated to be EPA Leader
President Trump moved to fill a seven-month vacancy in his cabinet by nominating Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator, to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, was second-in-command when Scott Pruitt resigned last July. Whereas Pruitt made headlines for his security spending, apartment searching, and penny pinching, his potential successor has kept a lower profile. Wheeler is viewed more as a policy technician, working to implement the Trump administration’s mission to prune federal oversight of polluting industries.

Wheeler’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for January 16 at 10:00 a.m. Eastern. Expect questions about industry influence, Waters of the United States, air emissions, PFAS, chemical evaluation, environmental justice, and more.

Water-Energy Research Bill
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) re-introduced a bill that requires the Department of Energy to establish a strategic plan to consider water use in energy research and development.

The Energy and Water Research Integration Act prioritizes development of energy technologies and practices that minimize fresh water use, increase water efficiency, and use alternative water sources that do not compete with drinking water. (Those alternative sources could be brackish water or oilfield wastewater.)

If history is an indicator, the bill faces a tough road. Johnson has introduced this bill four times since 2012, without success.

The Department of Energy, on the other hand, is already taking steps to prioritize research into alternative water sources.

The department is soliciting applications for a $100 million desalination research center. The center will look at research and development of technologies that bring down the cost of removing salts from water — not just ocean salt, but also brackish groundwater and oil industry wastewater.

Murkowski Introduces Big Land and Water Package
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced an omnibus package of land and water bills.

Key sections of the 660-page behemoth include:

  • Reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses oil and gas royalties for parks, trails, and habitat restoration.
  • Authorizing the third phase of a water supply and conservation plan in the Yakima River basin of Washington state that aims to provide water for fish, farmers, and tribes. The authorization includes a provision allowing irrigation districts to construct a pumping station in Kachess Reservoir, which would help them to tap the reservoir when water levels drop below the dam outlets. The plan is opposed by a group of property owners along the reservoir, who worry about the effect on lake levels.
  • Withdrawing 340,000 acres in the Methow Valley of Washington state from mining and geothermal leasing. The land is in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, along the headwaters of the Methow River.

Murkowski expects the bill to be considered in the Senate early this year.

Studies and Reports

E. Coli Outbreak Linked to Romaine Lettuce Is Over
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the E. coli outbreak, which sickened 62 people last fall, is over.

The tainted lettuce was traced to the central coast of California and to Adam Bros. Farming in Santa Barbara County. Investigators found the bacteria strain that caused the outbreak in sediment in an on-farm reservoir. They will continue to investigate how the bacteria entered the reservoir and contaminated the lettuce.

On the Radar

Wheeler Hearing
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works holds a confirmation hearing for Andrew Wheeler on January 16. Wheeler, currently the acting administrator, is nominated to be the head of the EPA.

Schedule Change for Columbia River Dam Review
Federal agencies announced that an environmental review of Columbia River dam operations will be completed by the end of September 2020, a year earlier than expected.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and Bureau of Reclamation made the change in response to an executive order, from October 2018, to quicken the review.

To better protect endangered and threatened fish species, a federal judge ordered the agencies to reexamine the operation of 14 federal dams, located in the basin states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

The review will take into account hydropower generation, fish survival, irrigation, navigation, flood control, recreation and other topics. Removal of four dams on the lower Snake River is one (massively controversial) option that will be considered.

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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