Federal Water Tap, March 11: Dams, A Mine, and PFAS

The Rundown

California Republicans aim to redirect federal funds for high-speed rail into water storage projects. FEMA only partially reimburses California for Oroville Dam repairs. The Trump administration orders rapid scientific review of California water proposal. The Army Corps approves a large copper mine in southeastern Arizona. New Mexico representatives introduce a bill to respond to PFAS groundwater contamination. A bipartisan House bill authorizes $23.5 billion over five years for wastewater infrastructure. The GAO updates its list of federal programs with a high risk of waste, fraud, and mismanagement, a list that includes environmental cleanup, flood insurance, and climate risk. American and Canadian negotiators meet to discuss the Columbia River Treaty. And lastly, the Energy Department offers a prize for wave-powered desalination.

“As far as the largest environmental issue facing the planet today I would have to say is water. The fact that a million people still die a year from a lack of potable drinking water is a crisis.” — Andrew Wheeler, newly confirmed as the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, during an interview on March 4 with Fox News. Wheeler was asked if he thought climate change an existential threat, one that requires swift action in the next 12 years. Wheeler claimed, without justifying his response, that the U.S. has the “cleanest, safest drinking water in the world.”

By the Numbers

$306 million: Reimbursement request by California for Oroville Dam spillway repairs that the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it will not fulfill. The spillway fractured in February 2017 when dam operators released a torrent of water to stabilize rising reservoir levels. FEMA has approved $333 million in Oroville funding so far. (Sacramento Bee)

$2.5 million: Prize money to design a system that uses the energy in ocean waves to power a desalination unit. The competition has four stages through which participants will advance, from initial ideas to field-tested demonstration projects. (Energy Department)

#1: It was the wettest winter (December-February) on record in the contiguous United States. (NOAA)

News Briefs

California Infrastructure Competition
“Dams or trains” posters flank the highways through California’s Central Valley, a multibillion-dollar farming hub that wants more water for almond, pistachio, and citrus orchards and other crops.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy and other California Republicans introduced a bill that would redirect money from the latter (trains) to the former (dams, or groundwater storage).

In their sights is up to $3.5 billion in federal money for high-speed rail in California. Some $2.5 billion has already been spent and would have to be clawed back by the Federal Railroad Administration. But other promised funds haven’t been used. In February, the FRA told the California High-Speed Rail Authority it would cancel $929 million in funding because the state is not making adequate progress on construction. Earlier that month, Gavin Newsom, the new governor, supported a scaled-down version of the project.

The House bill doesn’t provide a mechanism for recovering funds; it simply outlines where they would be directed.

Ninety percent of the recovered funds are earmarked for water storage projects, which includes new dams, raising existing dams, or groundwater storage. Five percent is for grants to reduce nitrate in drinking water in rural communities, and the final 5 percent goes to grants for rural communities with dry household wells.

For both rural community categories, the money can be used for drilling new wells or hooking households to a community water system.

Water Quality Protection and Jobs Creation Act
House Democrats and Republicans introduced a bipartisan bill to increase investment in wastewater infrastructure, authorizing to $23.5 billion over five years to a half dozen programs.

Eighty-five percent of the funds are destined for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a low-interest loan program. The monies would have to be appropriated during the budget process.

Arizona Mine Approval
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a $2 billion copper mine in southeastern Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star reports.

The Rosemont Mine, to be built by Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian firm, needed a Clean Water Act permit to bury 40 acres of desert washes. It’s the last permit that the mine required, and one that will likely be challenged in court.

Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to respond to PFAS contamination in the state.

The bills authorize the Defense Department to provide temporary water to farmers whose water sources are compromised by PFAS pollution from military bases.

The congressional action follow news reports that a dairy farmer in Clovis, New Mexico is dumping the milk his cows produce because of PFAS contamination. The chemicals, which are in the farm’s groundwater, migrated from nearby Cannon Air Force Base.

Studies and Reports

Quick Study
The Trump administration ordered federal scientists to speed up biological assessments of a water pumping proposal in California, KQED reports.

The proposal would send more water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to farms and cities in the south. The assessments will evaluate the effect on endangered fish species.

The scientists say that they do not have the resources to do the job well that quickly, according to emails obtained by KQED.

Environmental Concerns A Factor In Certain High-Risk Government Programs
The Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency, keeps a list of 35 federal programs it deems a “high risk” for their vulnerability to fraud, waste, and mismanagement or because they need substantial reform to save money or provide better public service.

In an update to Congress, the GAO highlighted the lack of progress in most high-risk programs.

Among the high-risk environmental issues: the National Flood Insurance Program does not adequately address climate change impacts on flooding; the Defense Department and Department of Energy have significant cleanup obligations for contaminated sites; the EPA needs to more effectively control toxic chemicals; and, most broadly, the government needs to better management financial exposure to climate risks.

One bright spot: satellite weather data, which the GAO removed as a high risk because of investments in new equipment.

Future U.S. Water Scarcity
A U.S. Forest Service researcher contributed to a study that assesses water stress in the United States and how various adaptation strategies affect water availability.

Areas of concerns should look familiar: the Colorado River basin, California, Florida, and the High Plains.

For adaptation strategies, the researcher used computer modeling to look at: increasing reservoir storage, decreasing the amount of water left in rivers, tapping groundwater reserves, and reducing irrigation. These strategies, they note, while in some cases increasing water availability, do impose external costs.

On the Radar

Columbia River Treaty
American and Canadian negotiators held a fifth round of meetings in late February to discuss updating the Columbia River Treaty, which governs the operation of dams on the cross-border river.

U.S. priorities are to maintain flood protection and electricity generation, the original purposes of the treaty when it was drafted in the 1960s, and to include ecosystem protections that improve salmon habitat. A British Columbia minister said that constituents in her province are concerned about lake levels and water availability.

The next round of talks is scheduled for April 10 and 11 in Victoria, British Columbia, while a town hall meeting will be held on March 20 in Kalispell, Montana.

Committee Hearings on Flood Insurance, Disaster Recovery
The House continues its frenetic hearing schedule.

This week:

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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