Federal Water Tap, September 3: Houston Agrees to $2 Billion Consent Decree to Patch Sewer System

The Rundown

One of the nation’s largest municipal sewage systems will spend big to control overflows. Nebraska and Wyoming farmers affected by the collapse of an irrigation tunnel in July are eligible for federal crop insurance payments, a USDA agency determines. The Department of Housing and Urban Development issues guidelines for how Louisiana can spent $1.2 billion to reduce flood risk. A Michigan representative introduces a bill to prevent EPA regional offices from closing and consolidating. A Supreme Court-appointed lawyer announces the next hearing in the river dispute between Florida and Georgia. And lastly, the U.S. Geological Survey tracks the growth of the Elwha River delta following the removal of two dams.

“Fixing Houston’s sewer system will be a massive undertaking. But it is necessary to protect public health and the environment.” — Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, discussing in a prepared statement the consent decree that aims to plug Houston’s sewer overflows.

By the Numbers

$2 billion: Estimated cost of measures to reduce sewage overflows in Houston. The city agreed to undertake the upgrades as part of a consent decree with the state and federal government. Upgrades include: increasing storage capacity to prevent overflows during heavy rain, remediate at least 150 miles of sewer mains a year, and institute a pipe cleaning program to undo blockages from fats, oils, and grease.

Houston is one of dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Seattle, and Toledo, to sign a federal consent decree related to sewage system pollution. These agreements generally result in repair bills that run into the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Sewer rates often rise in tandem, leading to growing concerns about the affordability of water and sewer service. (Justice Department)

In context: Price of Water 2019

148 acres: Growth of the Elwha River delta in the five years since two dams were torn down. It was the largest dam removal project in world history. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Crop Insurance for Farmers Affected by Tunnel Collapse
Farmers in Nebraska and Wyoming who lost crops because they could not irrigate following the July 17 collapse of a concrete irrigation tunnel will be eligible for federal insurance payments, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency determined.

An investigation found that the proximate cause of the collapse was several months of heavy precipitation. Because it was a weather-related failure, crop losses from a lack of irrigation water are covered under federal insurance policies, according to the USDA’s Risk Management Agency.

“Affected producers should reach out to their crop insurance agents to file a claim,” RMA said in a statement.

The blocked tunnel, built more than a century ago, disrupted water service for 55,000 acres in Nebraska and 52,000 acres in Wyoming.

Louisiana Flood Money
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidelines for how Louisiana can spend $1.2 billion in federal aid to help reduce flood risk, Center Square reports.

Half the money must be spent in the 10 parishes that were most damaged during severe flooding in 2016. The state must now submit its own spending plan, due in February.

EPA Anti-Relocation Bill
The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Department of Agriculture have proposed office closures and realignments that would move staff across the country. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) does not want that to happen with the EPA. Dingell introduced a bill to prohibit the use of funds for closing, consolidating, or eliminating EPA regional offices or program offices.

Studies and Reports

Elwha River, After Dam Removal
In the five years following removal of two aging dams, the Elwha River exceeded expectations for the amount of sediment that it would carry downstream, according to a team of researchers led by the U.S. Geological Survey. The findings illustrate the challenges of predicting the behavior of streams after dam removal.

The sediments were trapped behind Glines Canyon Dam and Elwha Dam, structures built on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in the early 20th century. Some two-thirds of the trapped sediment has been eroded. Only 10 percent stayed in the river channel. The remaining 90 percent was flushed far downstream where it has begun to rebuild the river’s delta. According to the report, the ecological regime in the delta underwent a “fundamental shift”: from erosion to deposition.

On the Radar

Water Reuse Plan
On September 10, the EPA will release a draft report on the reuse of wastewater. The report, to be unveiled at the WateReuse Association annual conference, in San Diego, will look at changes to policy, financial incentives, information gaps, performance audits, and more.

Florida v. Georgia Hearing Date Rescheduled
The next day in court for Florida and Georgia in their decades-long dispute over a shared river basin will be October 17 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Supreme Court-appointed lawyer, or “special master,” who is overseeing the fact-finding portion of the case moved the hearing up from December 16. No reason was given.

The hearing is the beginning of a do-over, of sorts. The Supreme Court, in June 2018, sent the case back to the special master. The court claimed that key questions were not answered and the standards that were applied were too strict. The original special master stepped down and a new one was appointed.

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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