Federal Water Tap, May 20: House Democrats Seek To Boost Water Infrastructure Spending

The Rundown

House spending bill adds hundreds of millions for water systems. The EPA considers additional ways to reuse or dispose of oil and gas wastewater. Senators introduce a bill to establish a total PFAS standard for drinking water and schedule a hearing on PFAS legislation. The EPA adds seven sites to the national Superfund list. The Army Corps outlines five alternatives it is evaluating in an environmental analysis of Columbia River dams. Thanks to the wettest 12-month (May to April) period on record, U.S. drought-affected area shrinks to lowest level in 20 years. And lastly, the USGS finds that it’s “raining plastic.” Literally.

“Our Interior-Environment funding bill totally rejects the pro-pollution, anti-public lands, anti-environmental protection budget proposal submitted to Congress by President Trump. Instead, Democrats are prioritizing investments that ensure our air is safe to breathe and our water is safe to drink. We are protecting public lands and continuing our federal trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations. To keep our families and communities safe and healthy, the bill restores adequate funding to the Environmental Protection Agency.” — Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) in a statement about a fiscal year 2020 spending bill for the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency.

By the Numbers

2.4 percent: Area of the United States categorized as being in drought. It’s the lowest drought coverage in 20 years. Why is the country temporarily soggy? The 12 months ending in April were the wettest such period in 124 years of record keeping. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

7: Sites added to the national Superfund list. Each of the sites, including a landfill in Puerto Rico, a copper mine in California, and manufacturing facilities in Michigan and West Virginia, have contaminated groundwater or creeks. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

5: Alternatives under consideration in an environmental analysis of long-term operations at 14 federal dams in the Columbia River watershed. It’s a big-deal assessment ordered by a federal judge that could remake the river’s built and natural environment. The assessment will evaluate options that would kill fewer fish in the watershed while maintaining authorized purposes of the dams such as hydropower, irrigation, navigation, and flood control. Needless to say, there are conflicts between these purposes. A draft environmental impact statement is scheduled to be published in February 2020. The webinar in the link outlines the five alternatives under consideration, including a controversial measure: breaching four dams on the Snake River. If that option is selected, congressional approval will be required. (Army Corps of Engineers)

News Briefs

Water Infrastructure Increase in House Spending Bill
It’s the early stages of the budget process, but House Democrats signaled their intent to increase water infrastructure funding.

Budget subcommittee members included a 7.5 percent ($672 million) increase in the EPA budget from the 2019 level, and a 12 percent increase ($345 million) in the two state revolving funds for water. The increases are part of the spending bill for the Interior Department and EPA.

The bill will be heard by the full House Appropriations Committee on May 22.

Feinstein Weighs In On California Water
Sen. Dianne Feinstein offered support for two state-level actions on California water.

The state’s senior Democrat praised Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to downsize a proposed water supply project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. Instead of two tunnels to move water southward, the governor wants a single pipe.

An advocate for desert habitat, Feinstein also applauded a state bill to require additional assessment of a controversial proposal to pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert for urban use. The bill has attracted significant lobbying dollars in Sacramento, the Desert Sun reports.

Water Bills In Congress
Action on PFAS chemicals, flood insurance, and more last week:

  • Sens. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced a bill that requires the EPA to set a drinking water standard for total PFAS. The bill sets a two-year deadline for the agency to finalize a standard. A similar bill was introduced in the House in April. The EPA, on its own, is assessing whether a standard is necessary. Administrator Andrew Wheeler indicated in February that he thinks it is.
  • Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) introduced a bill that would require utilities to monitor at least 30 PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
  • Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced an infrastructure bill that includes a $500-million-a-year grant program to help utilities pay the capital cost of treatment systems to remove PFAS from drinking water.
  • The House passed a four-month extension of the National Flood Insurance Program.

Studies and Reports

EPA Considers Relaxing Oilfield Wastewater Rules
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering ways to make it easier for oil and gas companies to dispose of their wastewater and how the salt- and chemical-laden water might be cleaned up and reused.

The agency’s draft study addresses a real problem: the growing volumes of wastewater that are a byproduct of the nation’s rising production of oil and natural gas.

Most of this “produced” water is reinjected deep underground. But industry groups and regulators in arid states are keen to explore additional options: reusing produced water for farm irrigation or industrial use, or treating and discharging it into streams, which is currently allowed only in areas west of the 98th meridian.

The EPA is accepting public comments on the draft through July 21. Submit them via oil-and-gas-study@epa.gov.

In context: New Mexico Oil Production Is Soaring. Now What To Do With The Wastewater?

Hard Rain
“It’s raining plastic.”

U.S. Geological Survey researchers offered that conclusion in a study of the composition of rain. The rain was collected at eight sites along Colorado’s Front Range.

In the samples they found plastics: miniscule shards, fibers, and fragments. The plastics were tiny, needing magnification of 20 to 40 times to be visible. But they were present in more than 90 percent of samples: predominantly in urban areas, but also in samples from a site at elevation 10,300 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rain-carried plastics are “ubiquitous and not just an urban condition,” they write.

Hurricane Florence Assessment
The National Hurricane Center released its final report on Hurricane Florence. The report covers the storm’s meteorology, physical characteristics, and economic impact. A category 1 at landfall, in September 2018, Florence resulted in an estimated $24 billion in damages from wind and water.

On the Radar

Coming Soon: New Drinking Water Standard
The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the first new contaminant to be regulated in drinking water in more than two decades.

The EPA submitted its perchlorate proposal for final review on April 16. The agency is under a court order to finalize a federal limit for the rocket fuel ingredient by May 28, 2019.

Congressional Hearings
On the schedule this week:

California Fire Outlook
Federal scientists will discuss the summer fire outlook for California and Nevada. The May 28 webinar is open to the public. Register at the above link.

Recent snow in the Sierra Nevada has dampened the risk of fire in the early season. But the late summer forecast for coastal and northern California is still above normal.

Lake Erie Algae
Because of heavy spring rains, NOAA expects a larger harmful algal bloom than last year, though the forecast did decrease the top end of the expected range. This early in the season there is still much uncertainty in the forecast.

The severity of the bloom is linked to the amount of phosphorus that washes into the lake.

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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