Federal Water Tap, August 17: Colorado River Forecast Triggers Small Cuts for 2021

The Rundown

Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico must make small cuts in Colorado River water use next year, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s forecast. The Energy Department proposes to loosen showerhead efficiency standards. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are concerned that groundwater pumping for the Trump administration’s border wall will harm endangered species in southern Arizona. NOAA Fisheries allows the killing of sea lions in the Columbia River to protect salmon. California Democrats introduce a snowpack monitoring bill. House Democrats ask inspectors general to investigate decisions around the Pebble Mine. The EPA inspector general, meanwhile, will investigate the agency’s work to address harmful algal blooms. A U.S. Commission on Civil Rights advisory group continues its work on water access in Massachusetts. The EPA moves its annual drinking water workshop online. And lastly, the Senate adjourns without taking up a coronavirus relief bill.

“The much more precise measurements of snowpack that ASO provides will be critical in better managing competing missions of western water storage reservoirs for flood control and water supply amidst a changing climate and growing population.” — Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaking on the Senate floor in support of her bill on airborne snow observation, which measures the water content of mountain snowpack.

By the Numbers

716: Sea lions that states and tribes will be allowed to kill along sections of the lower Columbia River in the next five years. Killing sea lions, permitted by an act of Congress in 2018, has the goal of protecting endangered salmon in the watershed. Sea lion predation is one of many pressures on the iconic fish, pressures that include dams and warmer waters. (NOAA Fisheries)

News Briefs

Senate Adjourns
The Senate will not meet again for a regular session until September 8, leaving for summer break without taking action on an emergency relief package to respond to the coronavirus.

Energy Department Proposes Relaxing Showerhead Rules
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 required that showerheads not spray more than 2.5 gallons per minute.

There had been debate over the years, as showerhead technology became an arms race, about the definition of “showerhead,” specifically when one unit wielded multiple heads.

The Energy Department is proposing to nix the existing definition, which requires that the entire unit — the flow of each individual nozzle added together — meet the 2.5 gallon-per-minute standard. The new definition would apply that standard to each nozzle individually. That means higher flows in aggregate, because each nozzle could spray 2.5 gallons per minute.

President Trump encouraged the move, but it is a curious decision. The water efficiency mandates in the Energy Policy Act have helped drive down household water use. Efficient fixtures have accounted for nearly all reductions in indoor water use, one study found.

Comments on the proposal are being accepted through September 14. Submit them via www.regulations.gov using docket number EERE-2020-BT-TP-0002.

In context: Efficient Fixtures Cut U.S. Indoor Water Use

Officials Voice Concerns about Groundwater Pumping for Border Wall
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are concerned that construction of the Trump administration’s border wall will harm endangered species at a refuge in southern Arizona.

Arizona Public Media reports that the manager of San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge expressed concerns over groundwater pumping last fall to officials at the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which are overseeing construction.

Contractors are pumping groundwater to make cement. Documents gained from a public records request show that refuge managers are seeing groundwater levels decline. Groundwater feeds the springs that are home to endangered fish and amphibians.

Snowpack Monitoring Bill
California Democrats introduced a bill that would provide $15 million to restart a novel program for monitoring Western water supplies.

The bill would fund a program that uses sensors mounted on airplanes to estimate the amount of water held in mountain snowpack. Airborne monitoring is more accurate than traditional, ground-based measurements, which are limited in their scope.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had operated the flights until last December, when it spun off the venture to the private sector. The bill would bring the program back under the public umbrella, establishing an airborne monitoring program within the Department of Interior.

Studies and Reports

Small Colorado River Restrictions In Effect Next Year
Colorado River water allocations to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico will be reduced a small amount in 2021.

The reductions, part of a water-sharing plan signed last year, are informed by projected water levels in the basin’s two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell. The projected levels at the end of the year set the water releases for the following year.

The Bureau of Reclamation released those projections last week. They indicate that Lake Mead will be at elevation 1,085. That means Arizona will see its allocation drop by 12 percent. Nevada and Mexico will take a 2.7 percent cut.

In context: Remarkable Drop in Colorado River Water Use a Sign of Climate Adaptation

EPA Work on Harmful Algal Blooms
The EPA Office of the Inspector General will investigate the agency’s work to address human and environmental health risks from harmful algal blooms.

In context: Regulators Will Soon Know A Lot More about Algal Toxins in U.S. Drinking Water

2019 Climate Review
Federal researchers contributed to a review of the planet’s climate in 2019 that was published by the American Meteorological Society.

Lake temperatures, on average, climbed across the globe, while Northern Hemisphere lakes were covered in ice for seven days fewer than the 1981-2010 average.

Pebble Mine Inquiries
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee asked the inspector generals of the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA to investigate an agency decision to reverse a veto of a mining project in sensitive terrain in Alaska.

House Democrats that signed the letters — Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Harley Rouda, and Jackie Speier — asked the EPA inspector general to scrutinize the agency’s reversal. They asked the Army Corps inspector general to evaluate the environmental review process, which the Corps guided.

The Obama administration vetoed the Pebble Mine, a gold and copper deposit in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The bay is one of the world’s great wild salmon fisheries and the agency, at that time, claimed that environmental damage outweighed the benefits of the mine.

The Trump administration overturned the veto in 2019.

On the Radar

Water Access in Massachusetts
The Massachusetts Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a teleconference on August 26 to discuss its work on drinking water access in the state.

The call is at 12:30 p.m. Eastern. The number is 1-800-353-6461, and the conference ID is 4756247.

USGS Water Data
The federal government’s premier water-science agency is seeking advice.

The U.S. Geological Survey wants feedback on its water-quality data and any changes that should be made to its products. There is a survey.

EPA Drinking Water Workshop
The annual workshop is going online this year and is open to the public.

Held September 1 to 3, the workshop brings together academics, federal researchers, state officials, and others involved in drinking water treatment and regulation.

There will be sessions on all the big questions of the day: PFAS, lead, pathogens in distribution systems, water access on the Navajo Nation during Covid-19, small system challenges.

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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