Congress adds $638 million for water-bill debt relief to a spending package that includes a Navajo Nation water rights settlement, a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water rights settlement, and a directive to the secretary of state to encourage regional collaboration on water resources in Tibet. Congress also reauthorizes the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and boosts authorized funding. And lastly, the EPA finalizes long-awaited rules for lead in drinking water.
“We, as a regulatory agency, can never just focus on one pollutant.” — Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, responding to a question about why requirements for replacing lead pipes were not stronger. Wheeler said that water utilities had financial obligations besides lead pipes.
By the Numbers
$638 million: Funding in the coronavirus relief package for water-bill debt relief.
After days of delay, while he questioned a deal secured by his own negotiators, President Trump signed a bill that funds the federal government and provides some $900 billion to respond to the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
Included in the bill is help for people who are behind on their water and sewer bills because of the pandemic.
The bill provides $638 million to forgive overdue water and sewer bills, the first-ever direct federal assistance for water payments.
The funding is intended to help low-income families in financial distress because of the pandemic. But the legislation does not include a prohibition on shutting off water service during the national health emergency, a provision that Democrats offered in earlier proposals but one that was opposed by utility groups. The funding is also far less than the $1.5 billion that Democrats had put forward.
Though the legislative work is complete, there are questions not only about how the program will be rolled out, but whether it is large enough to address the problem.
Top-line water infrastructure programs saw their funding remain flat in the 2021 budget bill. The Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds will be funded at $1.6 billion and $1.1 billion.
The bill includes $5 million for a pilot program for regional wastewater systems for poor communities where septic is difficult due to soil.
Besides funding the government, the budget bill became the vehicle for several other pieces of water-related legislation. The bill:
- Settles water rights claims for the Navajo Nation in Utah. The Nation will be allowed to deplete up to 81,500 acre-feet from the waters of the Colorado River basin in that state. The Nation will be allowed to lease the water for use off of the reservation. The agreement includes $217 million, mostly from federal funds, to develop water infrastructure on the reservation.
- Orders federal agencies to study a dam that would be central to a water rights settlement for the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas.
Settles water rights claims for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and provides $1.9 billion for water infrastructure and economic programs on the reservation. The agreement sets aside 90,000 acre-feet a year for the tribes’ use. Water can be leased for use off of the reservation.
- Establishes the position of special coordinator for Tibet, whose mandate is, among other things, to facilitate discussions between the Dalai Lama or their representatives and the government of China to preserve water resources in Tibet. It directs the secretary of state to “encourage a regional framework on water security” and encourage the sharing of data about water resources in Tibet.
- Authorized a rural water supply system for eastern and central Montana (Musselshell-Judith Rural Water System) and authorized a feasibility study for a second such system in the state (Dry-Redwater Regional Water Authority).
- Orders the secretary of energy to establish a research program for produced water, which is the chemical-laden brine that flows out of oil and gas wells. The $10-million-a-year program is to look at ways to reuse produced water and reduce its environmental impact.
Congress Reauthorizes Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
Congress increased authorized spending levels for the federal government’s flagship environmental restoration program, reauthorizing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative through 2026.
Annual funding for the program that cleans up toxic waste sites and repairs marshes in the eight-state region had been capped at $300 million. Authorized funding will increase annually until it reaches $475 million in 2026.
Authorized funding does not necessarily mean Congress will approve that level of spending. The restoration program, however, has earned strong bipartisan support in its 10-year existence.
Studies and Reports
EPA Revises Rules for Lead in Drinking Water
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completed its first major revisions in nearly three decades to federal rules for lead in drinking water, adding a raft of new intricacies to one of the country’s most complex drinking water regulations.
Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, called the revisions “the capstone” of the Trump administration’s efforts to address lead contamination, arguing that the goal is to protect children, reduce lead, and empower communities with more information about sources of lead in their water.
Water policy experts offered a more muted appraisal of the rule, acknowledging progress in some areas but pointing out serious flaws in the overall approach.
Much of the criticism of the EPA rule has been directed at changes to the timeline for replacing lead service lines. The previous rule required utilities with more than 10 percent of their water samples testing above 15 parts per billion for lead — a threshold called the “action level” — to replace 7 percent of their lead service lines per year. Utilities could stop the replacements once lead levels dropped below the action level for two consecutive six-month monitoring periods.
The new rule adjusts the numbers in this calculus. It cuts the pipe replacement requirement from 7 percent per year to 3 percent per year. Utilities have to continue that replacement schedule for a minimum of two years before they can opt out if their testing shows that lead levels are below the action level. Water samples must be taken from homes that have lead service lines.
In context: EPA Revises Rules for Lead in Drinking Water
On the Radar
The Bureau of Reclamation released its final feasibility report for an off-channel reservoir proposed for Northern California. An updated environmental impact statement is expected by August 2021.
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