NOAA scientists warn of “potentially unprecedented” spring floods in the Mississippi River watershed. The Colorado River basin states submit water conservation plans to Congress and prepare to testify in hearings this week. FEMA approves flood disaster declarations for Iowa and Nebraska. The EPA proposes 20 chemicals as a high priority for risk evaluations. The Justice Department and EPA propose requiring New York City to cover a drinking water reservoir and make other improvements that could cost $3 billion. Senators ask for documents related to interagency review of PFAS groundwater cleanup standards. FERC rebukes California officials on Oroville Dam operations. A Senate committee holds a confirmation hearing for David Bernhardt, nominated to run the Interior Department. And lastly, the Trump administration publishes a desalination strategy.
“The extensive flooding we’ve seen in the past two weeks will continue through May and become more dire and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream. This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk for flooding in their communities.” — Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center.
By the Numbers
20: Chemicals being evaluated as a high priority for risk analysis. Most of the chemicals are chlorinated solvents and halogenated fire retardants. Chemicals shown to be an “unreasonable risk” to health and the environment are subject to restrictions on their use. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
54: Full or partial levee breaches in the Missouri River basin in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska, as of noon Sunday. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Spring Flooding Outlook
Much of the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds have a moderate to major risk of flooding through May, according to NOAA’s spring outlook.
Several factors explain the increased risk for a basin that recently experienced record-breaking river levels. One, the ground is saturated from a wet winter. Two, a soggy spring is forecasted. And three, snow high in the watersheds has yet to melt.
Flooding Disaster Declaration
The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued disaster declarations for Nebraska and Iowa. The two states were hit hard by flooding in the Missouri River basin that overwhelmed levees, wrecked drinking water and sewer systems, and caused at least $3 billion in damages.
Residents of eight counties in Nebraska and five counties in Iowa are eligible for federal assistance for housing and home repairs. Dozens more counties are eligible for reimbursement of public cleanup costs.
Colorado River Basin Water Conservation Plans
After delay and cajoling and side deals, the seven Colorado River basin states submitted to Congress their plans to preserve water levels in Lake Mead.
The plans are being submitted without the participation of Imperial Irrigation District, the river’s largest water user. The district wanted guarantee of $200 million in federal funding to address water and air pollution at the Salton Sea.
The plans are being submitted just as the basin’s short-term outlook is improving. Despite the recent snowfall, Bureau of Reclamation officials are quick to warn that one average season does not change the long-term drying trend and “does not substantially reduce the risks facing the basin.”
PFAS Groundwater Cleanup
A “timely review” of the EPA’s proposed groundwater cleanup standards for PFAS chemicals is “essential,” according to the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.
In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) asked the Trump administration for documents related to the interagency review of the cleanup standards. They also said the review should be completed “as soon as possible.”
News outlets earlier this month reported that the process was being held up because of objections from the Department of Defense, NASA, and the Small Business Administration, which were arguing for less strict standards.
Studies and Reports
The Trump administration, with the input of more than a dozen federal agencies, outlined its strategy for promoting the use of salt-removing technologies as a tool for combating water scarcity.
The strategy addresses not only the desalination of ocean water, but also removing the salts from brackish groundwater and produced water from the oil and gas industry. Most desalination investments are made by local utilities, governments, and businesses, but the 28-page document lists three goals for federal involvement.
One is to assess local water availability and assist with planning. A second is to invest in federal research and development to reduce the cost of desalination. Third is to improve coordination, both within government and with the private sector.
The Trump administration has recently emphasized desalination in its water plans. The Department of Energy is in the middle of soliciting applications to host a $100 million desalination technology research center.
FERC Notes Oroville Dam Concerns
In a letter of caution, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warned California officials that they should do more analysis on the operation of Oroville Dam before the repaired spillway is recommissioned.
The letter warns that reservoir operations appear to be based on hydrology from a narrow historical window, which would underestimate potential runoff into the reservoir.
FERC also said that California officials should analyze alternatives to using the emergency spillway as soon as possible and not wait until the spillway might be needed, as the dam operators had planned.
“We strongly recommend DWR perform this evaluation upon receipt of this letter; before a possible need arises in utilizing the emergency spillway,” Frank Blackett, FERC’s regional engineer, wrote. “It will be too late to do this evaluation once it is recognized that the emergency spillway is needed.”
New York City Reservoir Covering
The EPA and the Justice Department submitted a consent decree that requires New York City to enclose an open-air reservoir in order to prevent drinking water contamination.
In addition to two other modifications written into the decree, the total cost could reach $3 billion.
The EPA finalized a rule in 2006 that required open-air reservoirs with finished drinking water to be covered.
On the Radar
Colorado River Hearings
Both chambers of Congress will interrogate representatives from the Colorado River basin. The purpose of the questioning is the water conservation plans that the seven basin states have signed and now await Congress’s blessing.
On March 27, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony from Brenda Burman, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as from representatives from Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming.
The next day, the House Natural Resources Committee will hear from representatives of all seven basin states, in addition to Burman.
Interior Confirmation Hearing
On March 28, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gathers to question David Bernhardt, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Interior Department.
A former lobbyist and lawyer that represented water districts and oil, gas, and mining companies as well as the department’s top lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, Bernhardt is currently the acting Interior secretary, a role he assumed after Ryan Zinke resigned in December.
EPA Science Advisory Group Meeting
The water subcommittee of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, an advisory group, will hold a public meeting on April 23 and 24 in Washington, D.C.
An agenda is not yet available, but the members will discuss water technology research and the development of a research plan for the next several years.
Register to attend by April 16.
Natural Gas Pipeline Review
FERC announced the schedule for an environmental review of the MVP Southgate project, a 73-mile natural gas pipeline in southern Virginia and North Carolina. The draft environmental impact statement is expected in July and the final by mid-December.
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). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton