Senate Republicans added energy bill assistance to their coronavirus response, but not water bill aid. Senate Democrats introduced legislation to suspend water shutoffs and provide water bill aid. A separate bill addresses environmental justice concerns regarding Clean Water Act permitting. The House passes a water infrastructure package. Paradise Irrigation District receives a FEMA grant to repair its water system following the devastating Camp Fire. The GAO audits climate adaptation spending at USAID and the climate risk of the Defense Department’s supply chain. An IJC fisheries report finds more evidence that the Great Lakes ecosystem is out of balance. Federal agencies do not recommend breaching four Snake River dams to benefit salmon. The EPA finalizes a lead pipe rule. The DOJ limits certain federal enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act. And lastly, Mexico again falls behind on Rio Grande water deliveries to the United States.
“The puzzle is that, at the same time as we see algae in the nearshore, we see fewer, leaner top predator fish like Lake Trout growing out in the deeper parts of the lakes. It is a proverbial famine for those fish because there are not enough nutrients cycling to the offshore to support their food supply. Invasive species are therefore another important part of this complex problem that needs to be addressed.” — Rob Sisson, U.S. commissioner with the International Joint Commission, which published a scientific assessment of the decline of deep water fish populations in the Great Lakes.
By the Numbers
$810 million: Climate adaptation assistance provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development between 2014 and 2018. About half of the sum was for direct climate adaptation projects, but the Trump administration prohibited that spending in 2017 and 2018. Congress ordered that funding of this area return in 2020. (GAO)
$3.4 million: Grant awarded to Paradise Irrigation District by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair the district’s water system, which was extensively damaged in the Camp Fire, in November 2018. Kevin Phillips, the district manager, told Circle of Blue that the funds will be spent on replacing water service lines and backflow devices that were contaminated with volatile organic chemicals during the fire.
Senate Coronavirus Response
Senate Republicans introduced their proposal for the next coronavirus relief measure.
The package offers $1.5 billion to top up an existing energy bill assistance for low-income residents, but it includes no such provision for water bills.
House Democrats, by contrast, inserted $1.5 billion in their coronavirus response package to help households that are behind on water payments. In support, Senate Democrats introduced a companion bill that mirrors the provisions in the House proposal.
Infrastructure Bill Passes House
The House passed the Water Resources Development Act, a bill that is brought forth every other year to fund Army Corps of Engineers water infrastructure projects, including levees, ports, dams, and ecosystem restoration.
Environmental Justice Act
Senate Democrats introduced a wide-ranging environmental justice bill, which includes the requirement that cumulative impacts be considered for Clean Water Act permitting.
EPA Finalizes Lead Rule
“Lead-free” pipes can now have only 0.25 percent lead on the surfaces exposed to water, after the EPA finalized a rule that incorporates changes required by Congress. Prior to the change, “lead-free” pipes could have as much as 8 percent lead content.
Pandemic Causes Financial Shock to Water Utilities in Developing Countries
The U.S. Agency for International Development is working with several large water utilities in Kenya to anticipate the financial consequences of the pandemic.
The results of three such financial assessments are “stark,” the agency said. The three utilities are on course to run out of cash by September. Options to avoid this scenario include: outside financial aid, restructuring debt, cutting costs, and selling assets.
Studies and Reports
Fisheries Decline in Great Lakes
Water quality changes along the shores of the Great Lakes are degrading the food chain in four of the five lakes and sending the deep-water ecosystem into “unknown territory,” according to an International Joint Commission science advisory board report.
Algal blooms in coastal waters combined with an explosion in invasive mussels have upset the ecological balance for fish in every lake but Erie, the IJC report says. The IJC oversees waters shared by Canada and the United States.
Though water along the lake shores is rich in nutrients, deeper waters have a severe deficit, creating biological deserts where fish biomass is close to the lowest on record.
Agencies Release Final EIS for Columbia River Dams
Four dams on the Lower Snake River should not be breached, according to a federal review of dam operations in the Columbia/Snake basin.
The review, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and Bureau of Reclamation, is an attempt to balance the health of endangered and threatened salmon species with the other purposes of the watershed’s 14 federal dams: flood control, navigation, power generation, recreation, and water supply.
Instead of breaching the four Lower Snake dams, the review suggests changes in operational procedures at dams throughout the basin that are expected to kill fewer young salmon. Dams would send more water down the spillways in the spring, when young salmon are migrating, instead of through the turbines, which can be lethal to the fish.
Justice Department Memo Limits Federal Clean Water Act Enforcement
The Justice Department will discourage its lawyers to seek civil penalties under the Clean Water Act if a state has already initiated or completed such an action under a state law.
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, assistant attorney general, conveyed that message in a memo that discourages “piling on” — the repetition of federal action on top of state action.
Climate Risk in the Military Supply Chain
The Defense Department should assess the climate risks of its contractors, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
The military has guidance for assessing climate risks at its own facilities, but those evaluations do not extend to commercial facilities that act as suppliers.
USGS Reports of Note from Texas
Several water-related assessments from the U.S. Geological Survey:
- Water quality sampling in the U.S. portion of the Hueco Bolson aquifer, which is shared with Mexico.
- Water and proppant requirements for future oil development in the Eagle Ford shale of southern Texas.
On the Radar
U.S. Asks Mexico to Fulfill Rio Grande Water Requirements
U.S. officials who oversee rivers on the southern border notified their Mexican counterparts that Mexico needs to comply with a water-sharing treaty over the Rio Grande.
The treaty, signed in 1944, requires Mexico to deliver a set amount of water over a five-year cycle. To meet that obligation, Mexico must provide at least 416,000 acre-feet by October, when the current cycle ends. That amount is greater than the annual volume if the five-year requirement of 1.75 million acre-feet were to be broken into five equal, annual allotments.
This is the second consecutive five-year cycle in which Mexico has fallen behind on deliveries.
PFAS Research Workshop
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will collaborate with four federal agencies on a two-day workshop to showcase federal PFAS research.
The online event is planned for this fall.
Air Force Beings PFAS Investigation in Texas
The Air Force said it began investigating in June the extent of groundwater contamination at the former Reese Air Force Base, near Lubbock, Texas.
The Air Force installed monitoring wells to map the movement of PFAS chemicals in groundwater. The chemicals were used in firefighting foams on the base, which closed in 1997.
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